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Barges full of coal tied up on the Tennessee River by the temporary barge unloader at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Widows Creek Fossil Plant in this file photo.


TVA has closed or is preparing to close more than half of the 59 coal units it once operated.

Shut down

• 4 units at John Sevier in Tennessee by 2014

• 7 units at Widows Creek in Alabama in 2013 and 2014

• 10 units at Johnsonville in Tennessee retired by the end of 2017

• 3 units at Allen in Memphis by the end of 2018

• 5 units at the Colbert plant in Alabama by 2015

• 2 units at Paradise in Kentucky by 2016

• 1 unit at Shawnee in Kentucky in 2010

Keep running

• 1 unit at Widows Creek in Alabama

• 2 units at Cumberland near Nashville

• 9 units at Kingston in Tennessee

• 4 units at Gallatin in Tennessee

• 1 unit at Paradise in Kentucky

• Either 7 or 9 units at Shawnee in Kentucky, depending upon TVA decision next month

About Shawnee Fossil Plant

Location: Paducah, Ky., on the Ohio River

Size: Nine units capable of generating 8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough for 540,000 homes. Unit 10 was already shut down.

History: Construction began in 1951 and was completed in 1956.

Pollution controls: Coal scrubbers and selective catalytic control (SCR) devices were installed on seven of the nine units to limit smog emissions.

Decision: For units 1 and 4, TVA must either retrofit or shut down the units by December 2017

Schedule: An environmental assessment will soon be released and TVA must send letter to EPA of its decision on units 1 and 4 by Dec. 31.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won re-election and will become Senate majority leader in 2015 with his vow to fight what he calls President Obama's "war on coal."

But the federal government's biggest utility may decide next month to curb its coal use, even in McConnell's coal-rich Kentucky, to reduce pollution and meet environmental rules.

TVA will decide whether to retrofit or shut down two of the nine units at the Shawnee Fossil Plant in Paducah, Ky. Units 1 and 4 are the only coal-fired units there still lacking scrubbers and selective catalytic control devices to control harmful smog emissions.

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The utility has closed or is shutting down more than half of the 59 coal-fired units it once used to generate nearly two-thirds of its electricity at other plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

TVA President Bill Johnson has set a goal of cutting coal power to just 20 percent of the utility's portfolio as part of a cleaner and more diverse power profile. Johnson, 60, jokes that he would like to close the coal plants that are older than he is.

Last year, TVA decided to shut down two units at its Paradise Fossil Plant -- its other Kentucky coal plant -- and replace them with a $1 billion combined-cycle natural gas plant. At the time, McConnell said the decision was a mistake.

"To allow a historically abundant and proven resource, such as coal, to fall by the wayside will ultimately threaten our energy independence," McConnell said.

The Shawnee fossil plant was built in the 1950s, and its nine units supply enough electricity to serve about 540,000 homes.

Shawnee sits closest to the rich coal mines in Western Kentucky and Southern Illinois of any of TVA's coal plants, which means its production costs are lower than other coal plants like John Sevier, Allen and Johnsonville being shut down by TVA.

"When you evaluate plants like this, you look at what is the cost of the output, how flexible is its generation, what's the historic performance and what's the cost of the fuel," Johnson said. "In those categories, Shawnee is a very low-cost plant with very good performance. It's a good, flexible plant and that differentiates it from plants like Allen and Paradise [which TVA decided earlier this year to shut down]."

But the demand for Shawnee's power dropped in 2005 when Paducah Power System left the TVA system and joined in building a new coal plant in southern Illinois. Power demand fell even more last year when the U.S. Enrichment Corp. closed down its uranium processing plant, cutting out TVA's single biggest industrial customer.

But the USEC closing, which forced the layoff of 1,000 employees, also is the reason why local officials in Paducah are urging TVA not to also shut down units at Shawnee.

Charlie Martin, executive director of the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, urged TVA directors at a recent meeting in Nashville to keep all of the Shawnee units running to help avoid even more job losses.

"The potential investment by TVA and upgrades to units 1 and 4 at Shawnee would go a long way in helping ease the pain of job losses from closure of one federal facility through extension of life and job creation of another federal facility," he said.

Bryan Carner, chairman-elect of the Paducah Chamber of Commerce, also urged TVA to keep the units running to help supply needed power for future growth.

"We're fighting to obtain federal funds to clean up that (USEC) site and reuse the facility and we believe there will be a need for additional power for this area," he said.

Johnson said a decision to retire the Shawnee units would be final. But if a retrofit is chosen, board members could change their minds any time before Dec. 31, 2017, the time when the decision must be fully executed.

"Somewhere near the end of the year, we will make a recommendation to the board, and the board will make a decision about what they want to do," Johnson said.

The initial public comment period for the environmental assessment closed last week with supporters and opponents weighing in.

Anti-coal activists want the Shawnee units shut down, claiming they contribute to smog pollution and global warming.

From 2007 through 2013, 179 U.S. coal plants were shut down, reducing coal generation by 21 percent. The Sierra Club says the reduced emissions from those plant closings should mean 147 fewer people per year die of respiratory-related illness.

The Sierra Club estimates that 40 percent of the lost generation from the coal plant closings has been made up from renewables, 30 percent from natural gas and 30 percent from energy efficiency and conservation.

Jonathan Levenshus, a representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said declining costs for generating power from solar, wind and other renewable sources, combined with opportunities energy efficiency in homes and businesses, should lead TVA to shutter the two Shawnee units for environmental and economic reasons.

"This is not a time for cynicism and despair; it's a time for hope and action," he told the TVA board. "We're not just cleaning up our air and water through these actions [of shutting down old coal plants]. We're also saving money."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.