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Staff file photo / The last unit at the Paradise Fossil Plant near Drakesboro, Kentucky, was shut down in February 2020 — 57 years after the coal plant began generating power. TVA has shut down most of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated and is planning to phase out its remaining plants by 2035.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which once got nearly two thirds of its power by burning coal, is preparing plans to phase out the last of its aging fleet of coal power plants within the next decade and a half and turn to more natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power to generate more carbon-free electricity.

During a conference with top energy and union leaders and the chair of the Senate committee that oversees energy development, TVA President Jeff Lyash said he expects by 2035 that TVA will be able to cut its carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels by 80% below the peak levels reached in 2005. Already, TVA cut its carbon output by 63% in the past decade and a half, nearly twice the industry average for all U.S. utilities, and Lyash said the federal utility is looking for ways to cost-effectively make further reductions in its greenhouse emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming.

"TVA has been a leader and we are ready to continue to lead in this area," Lyash said Wednesday during a conference by the Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that focuses on American- European relations and development. "We've retired about 60% of our coal generation already and our coal units will continue to retire over the next 15 years because they have reached the end of the life for these facilities."

TVA has already shut down 34 of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated, including closing its Widows Creek, Colbert, John Sevier, Allen, Paradise and Johnsonville coal plants in the past decade. TVA is preparing to shutter its Bull Run Fossil plant by 2023 and, subject to environmental studies and board approval, is planning to ultimately shut down its Cumberland, Gallatin, Kingston and Shawnee coal plants by 2035.

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TVA planning to phase out coal power

In their place, TVA has expanded the output of its nuclear power plants, built new high-efficiency natural gas plants and contracted to buy more solar and wind power through its Green Invest and other programs.

But to become carbon-free by 2050, Lyash said TVA will likely need to not only keep operating its existing nuclear plants but add some of the new smaller modular reactors being developed for the next generation of atomic power as well as find ways to employ carbon capture sequestration for its natural gas plants.

"We're driving as hard as we can, but we cannot attain our goal of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 unless we preserve and extend the life of our existing nuclear fleet," Lyash said. "To close that gap between 80% and 100%, we need new ways to attain energy storage, carbon capture and new nuclear in the form of small modular reactors."

TVA has obtained the first early site permit on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge to potentially build small modular reactors. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to approve any of the proposed new designs for the smaller, factory-built reactors. But advocates for the new technology contend the new designs will be more flexible, safer and potentially cheaper than the previous generation of nuclear power.

Maria Korsnick, president and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said small modular reactors should be added to the grid within the next decade.

"In this decade, we have to build these examples (of small modular reactors) so people can see this technology and we can begin to understand the cost profile of this carbon-free generation," she said.

Lyash said TVA could potentially build and start operating small modular reactors on the Clinch River site by 2032, but he said the first-of-kind plants will need federal government support to develop the new technology.

Anti-nuclear advocates argue that new nuclear plants have consistently proven to take longer to build and cost more than projected and the federal government has yet to identify a nuclear storage site to dump the radioactive wastes generated in a commercial nuclear power plant.

"No matter which design, nuclear power is old technology clad in new clothing to save the nuclear industry," said Sandra Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmental leader who is co-president of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "Further, nuclear power does not help with climate change as it takes too long to build and is not reliable in increasingly hot temperatures and likely less water availability."

The last two new nuclear power plants built or being built for America's power grid — TVA's Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee and Southern Co.'s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia — cost more than twice as much as originally projected.

Despite the cost overruns, however, Lyash said nuclear power remains the second cheapest source of TVA power behind only the hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Once new designs have been developed and built, the small modular reactors should offer more savings since many of the parts can be built in a factory and not on site.

Kurtz said she is encouraged by TVA's carbon reductions and plans to phase out its coal generation in the future. But she said solar, wind and battery storage, combined with stronger energy conservation measures, should be able to meet future energy needs in a cleaner, less costly manner for most consumers.

Although electricity demand for residential and commercial buildings and manufacturing has stagnated as appliances, furnaces and equipment have become more energy efficient, electricity demand should grow again in the future as gas-powered vehicles are increasingly replaced with electric-powered cars and trucks, Lyash said.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said new technologies will be needed to eliminate the greenhouse emissions from coal, gas and other fossil fuels that will continue to power transportation, electricity and other energy needs well into the future. Manchin also urged support for keeping existing nuclear reactors online and adding more nuclear generation, which he said may be added or built in areas where coal jobs are being lost.

Even though TVA and other U.S. utilities are cutting their use of coal, other nations around the world are building or planning to add 1,066 more coal power plants, bringing the global total of coal-fired generators to more than 7,600. Munchin said only 504 of those coal plants are in the United States but coal is expected to remain a major source of energy around the globe for decades to come.

"Carbon capture sequestration is the way you must go if you really want to help the global climate," Manchin said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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