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J. Miles Cary/Knoxville News Sentinel photo / Coal ash from a 40-acre pond flows into the Emory River after a retention wall collapsed Dec. 22, 2008, at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The Tennessee Valley Authority estimates that 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash rolled into the river and over more than 300 acres of land after the spill.

This story was updated at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, 2021, with more information.

When the Kingston Fossil Plant began power generation for the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1955, it was the largest coal-burning power plant in the world — a distinction it held for more than a decade.

But after 66 years of electricity generation — and the nation's worst coal ash spill at the site more than 12 years ago — TVA is proposing that it could begin shutting down the Kingston coal plant, starting within the next five years.

TVA launched a public scoping process this week with a public hearing to solicit public input on the future of Kingston. In its notice of the environmental review process, TVA proposes to retire three Kingston units as early as 2026, but no later than 2031. The remaining six units at Kingston could be shut down as early as 2027 under one of the proposals TVA is considering for the coal plant.

The environmental review of the Kingston plant could consider a variety of options for the site, including keeping it as a coal plant, building a natural gas plant on the property or replacing the power with renewables, battery storage or energy efficiency measures.

TVA CEO Jeff Lyash has said he wants to phase out all of TVA's aging coal fleet within the next decade and a half and is starting the process with TVA's biggest coal plants.

"Our coal fleet has done and continues to do an exceptional job delivering reliable energy to the Valley," said Kris Edmondson, vice president of coal operations at TVA. "Given the age, condition, change in run profiles and evolving environmental regulations, it is more and more challenging for our coal fleet to deliver low cost, reliable energy."

TVA launched a similar public scoping process last month to begin shutting down its biggest coal plant — the Cumberland Fossil Plant in Middle Tennessee — also beginning in 2026. TVA plans to shut down its Bull Run Fossil plant near Oak Ridge in 2023.

TVA said the closure schedule is "dependent on when replacement generation could be constructed and brought online," which could be either solar power, natural gas generation or both.

"These decisions are not made lightly," said Jacinda Woodward, senior vice president of power operations. "We know that impacts to our assets will impact our employees and the communities where they are located. We have a plan in place to support both through these changes."

The 182 full-time TVA employees who work at Kingston will be offered training for other jobs, outplacement services or, in some instance, opportunities to shift to other TVA jobs as their work is completed in coming years, Edmondson said.

In its notice of the environmental assessment, TVA said its aging coal fleet is among the nation's oldest "and is experiencing deterioration of material condition and performance challenges" that are limiting production and increasing costs. As part of TVA's decarbonization strategy, the utility adopted a preliminary plan to phase out all coal-fired generation by 2035 and shut down the Kingston plant even earlier.

TVA has yet to decide on a specific timetable for the closure of the Kingston coal plant or what power generation would replace the 9-unit coal plant, which can generate approximately 10 billion kilowatt-hours a year, or enough electricity to power approximately 700,000 homes. Kingston burns about 14,000 tons of coal a day, or enough to fill 140 railroad cars.

TVA TURNS TO THE SUN

Jane Elliott, a senior vice president of enterprise at TVA, said the federal utility is planning on adding more than 10 gigawatts of additional solar power generation in the next decade and a half and the utility continues to add more gas-fired units to replace its shuttered coal units and modernize older combustion turbines. Gas-fired generators can be fired up to better meet intermittent power needs and can generate power even when the sun doesn't shine, the wind doesn't blow or rainfall declines in the region for TVA's renewable energy sources, Elliott said.

"As solar prices have been coming down, TVA has been working with our customers to help them meet their renewable goals," Elliott told a public hearing Wednesday night on the future of the Kingston site. "We've already made commitments to add 2,300 megawatts of solar to our system over the next few years and then we have plans in place to reach about 10,000 megawatts of solar by 2035."

But Elliott noted that solar's energy capacity, or the share of time solar units produce maximum power, is only about 25%. Gas-fired units may be more expensive per megawatt of capacity, but gas units have a higher capacity factor and can be used more as needed.

STEPPING ON THE GAS

"To back up our renewables, we need to have some form a capacity available, especially during our peak demand periods at 7 a.m. in the winter months when the sun may not be shining," Elliott said.

While current TVA market projections see little increase in power demand for the foreseeable future, power demand will continue to fluctuate daily, such as during extreme hot or cold weather.

"We need agile assets that can ramp up quickly and cycle on and off to meet minute-to-minute power needs in the Valley," said Jerry Snyder, TVA's transmission scheduler. "When demand is high, we need all assets running. But when it's low, we make decisions based on cost-effectiveness for which plants should go offline – and it's usually the higher-costing coal fleet that's put in reserve shut down."

Woodward said "every megawatt we retire will need to be replaced" for TVA to keep pace with power demand. Although energy efficiency is cutting electricity use in most households, electric vehicles are projected to create a new demand for electricity in coming years.

CLEANING UP COAL'S LEGACY

Environmental activists have welcomed TVA's shift away from coal, which once supplied nearly two thirds of TVA's electricity but has been a primary emitter of greenhouse gases and also created environmental problems with its residue, including coal ash.

The Kingston Fossil Plant was the site of the worst environmental spill ever in the U.S. in December 2008 when 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled from a ruptured coal ash pond at the Kingston plant and damaged more than 300 acres of nearby waterways and residential properties. TVA has spent more than $2.1 billion already on cleaning up coal residues at its plants, including Kingston where TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the 2008 coal ash spill was cleaned up by 2015.

While praising TVA's phase out of coal, environmental leaders are objecting to TVA's consideration of building more natural gas plants to replace the shuttered coal units.

Brady Watson, a civic engagement coordinator at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, urged TVA to move away from what he said appears to be its preferred replacement option for a gas power plant that will require a new gas pipeline.

"We know the dire consequences of continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure and what the potential polluting impacts both on the public's health and the environment can lead to," he said. "We must speak up to tell TVA don't replace one fossil plant with another. We can get to 100% clean power over the next decade, while improving public health, creating jobs, and doing our part to stop the climate crisis."

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

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