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This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at 8:09 p.m. with more information.

Environmental groups upset that the Tennessee Valley Authority isn't doing more to listen to public concerns and criticisms locked arms outside of a TVA board meeting Wednesday to protest what they claim is TVA locking them out of public meetings.

During the coronavirus pandemic, TVA has not conducted any public listening sessions at its board meetings in over a year and met again Wednesday without allowing the public to directly address the TVA board.

Although TVA receives written comments and questions that are presented to TVA board members, critics complain that they are not able to speak directly to TVA directors in a public forum as they did before the pandemic, even in a virtual online session similar to what many other governments have done.

"Public input is critical right now, while TVA is considering building new, large fossil gas power plants and pipelines, even though they would be contrary to our need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030," said Brady Watson, civic engagement coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), one of the environmental groups objecting to the way TVA is conducting its public meetings.

"TVA's current leadership is locking us out of decisions impacting our future, so we're locking arms outside of TVA towers in downtown Knoxville," Watson said.

About 30 representatives from the Sierra Club, the Center for Biodiversity, Appalachian Voices, SACE and SunRise chapters in Knoxville and Nashville demonstrated outside of the TVA towers on Wednesday for about an hour before taking what the groups said were written messages from nearly 4,000 people urging more public input and greener policies by TVA. The symbolic protest outside of the TVA towers didn't prevent the board meeting inside from happening.

TVA Chairman Bill Kilbride said utility directors, who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, carefully consider the public input they get from written comments and public hearings in making decisions they deem to be in the best interests of the Tennessee Valley. By allowing written comments, more people are sending messages to the board than in the previous public listening meetings, including a record of more than 2,000 comments before Wednesday's board meeting.

Kilbride said he hopes the TVA board will be able to restore its public listening sessions by the next board meeting in February along with the written comments.

"I think I speak for the whole board of directors when I say we are anxious to get back to holding these meetings in person with public attendance," Kilbride said.

But the protesters want TVA to conduct virtual public listening sessions immediately and invest more in clean energy to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

"It is imperative that the Tennessee Valley Authority transitions away from fossil fuels completely by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change," said Amy Kelly, a seventh-generation Tennessean from Kingsport who heads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign in Tennessee. "We know that the planet is burning, yet TVA board members are planning to replace coal-burning plants with another fossil fuel — natural gas — all while making decisions without the consent of TVA customers across the Southeast."

 

TVA's diverse portfolio

TVA, which says it has maintained 99.999% reliable power delivery for more than two decades, touts its diverse energy portfolio for providing both reliable and below-average cost electricity. TVA reduced its average cost of delivered power by 1.5% in fiscal 2021. Among the 100 largest U.S. utilities, TVA ranks as having the 21st lowest utility rates for residential customers and the fifth-lowest utility for its industrial rates.

TVA is considering ways to replace the power it will lose when it shuts down the 2,250-megawatt Cumberland Fossil Plant in Middle Tennessee — its biggest coal plant — and the 1,450-megawatt Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee. TVA is conducting an environmental assessment and study of either using natural gas or solar power to help replace at least some of the lost coal generation.

On Wednesday, the TVA board voted unanimously to delegate authority to TVA President Jeff Lyash to take project development actions and make final decisions about future uses at the plant. Lyash said TVA is still considering its energy options at Cumberland and Kingston and any new source of power will require the board's endorsements, although he will not necessarily have to wait for a formal board vote at one of the board's four public meetings a year.

Environmentalists at Wednesday's demonstration questioned why the current TVA board, which includes two appointees by former President Trump who are about to leave the board, authorized Lyash to move ahead rather than wait for a full new board to take office next year.

"Shifting these major decisions from the U.S. Senate-approved board nominees to TVA's CEO comes at a time of continued delays in the confirmation process for President Biden's four new TVA board nominees and the board's action today appears to effectively preempt the voting power of the incoming board nominees," Watson said.

 

Pouring on the gas

TVA is already in the process of installing natural gas generators at other abandoned coal plants, including the Paradise plant in Kentucky, the Colbert plant in Alabama and the Allen plant in Memphis.

TVA, which operates the oldest coal fleet in the country, is planning to phase out the last of the 59 coal-fired generating units it once operated by 2035 by shifting more to nuclear power, natural gas and renewable power from solar and wind generators. TVA has already cut its carbon emissions by 63% below its 2005 levels — nearly twice the industry average for all U.S. utilities — and has set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions at least 80% by 2035 and to be totally carbon-free by 2050.

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 about 2,700 megawatts of additional solar generation in the pipeline or being built and has set a goal of 10,000 megawatts of solar generation by 2035.

"That [solar] produces energy so coal can produce less of our electricity, but you still have to look at other attributes like the capacity of our system," Lyash said in an interview last week with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Lyash said there are limits to going to all solar or distributed energy.

What happens when you have a week's worth of cloudy rain and snow if you are relying upon solar?" he asked. "How do you power the electric arc furnaces at Nucor [in Decatur, Alabama] or Ford's new Blue Oval city [being built near Memphis]?"

Lyash said TVA can use higher-efficiency gas units and cut its carbon output compared with the older gas units and coal plants being replaced. But he said until better battery or other power storage is developed, natural gas is needed as a bridge power source that can quickly be added to the system to meet peak demands.

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

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