True to their name, some of TVA's fossil plants could become extinct dinosaurs for the nation's biggest government utility within the next five years.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the oldest fleet of coal plants in the South, is looking at shutting down its oldest coal-fired power generation.

TVA President Tom Kilgore said last week that the utility is studying whether it should close its John Sevier Fossil Plant near Rogersville, Tenn., and the oldest six units of the Widows Creek Fossil Plant near Stevenson, Ala.

PDF: TVA coal plants


TVA's coal-fired plants, on average, are the oldest of any Southern utility.

Utility Average age

Tennessee Valley Authority 47.1 years

Duke Power in Carolinas 43.7 years

Kentucky Power 41.5 years

Appalachian Power 40.3 years

Progress Energy Carolina 35.7 years

Alabama Power 34.9 years

Georgia Power 34.4 years

A federal judge has ordered TVA to install more than $1 billion in pollution upgrades on the plants by the end of 2013. But TVA has yet to budget any money for the improvements.

"We have not made decisions on those plants," Mr. Kilgore said when asked if TVA plans to close the plants in response to the court order.

In next year's budget, TVA plans to begin building an $820 million, combined-cycle, gas-powered plant to replace the generation at the John Sevier plant. With power demand down because of the recession, TVA also has reduced power production this year from the oldest six units at Widows Creek.

Environmental activists want TVA to shut down the oldest and least efficient coal-fired plants to limit air pollution and greenhouse gases linked with global warming. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, urged TVA to phase out the oldest units at the Widows Creek, John Sevier and Johnsonville plants or convert those units to more efficient gas-fired units.

The 10-unit Johnsonville plant, TVA's oldest at 60 years of age, was not included in a North Carolina nuisance lawsuit that is forcing TVA to review the future of its 59-year-old Widows Creek plant and the 57-year-old John Sevier plant. Dr. Smith said Johnsonville is one of the least efficient coal plants and also should be shut down.

These plants need to be either converted to a cleaner fuel and technology, such as combined-cycle natural gas, or they need to be shut down, he said. "In the carbon-constrained world we are moving into, it no longer makes sense to run these types of old and dirty plants," Dr. Smith said.

Sandy Kurtz, a member of the Solar Valley Coalition, said TVA needs to do more to limit emissions that contribute to smog and climate change.

"Any effort to remove coal burning from TVA's energy system would be a marvelous improvement for the environment and public health," she said. "We need to move away from the burning of coal, and we have a good opportunity right now to make that transition with power consumption down because of the economy."

utilities rethink coal

Other Southern utilities already are making such changes in preparation for expected legislation to limit carbon emissions.

Georgia Power Co. is moving ahead with plans to replace its coal-fired Plant Jack McDonough in Smyrna, Ga., with a natural gas-fired plant and switch its Mitchell plant near Albany, Ga., from coal to wood chips.

Progress Energy Corp. announced last week it will shut down three coal-fired power units near Goldsboro, N.C., and apply for regulatory approval to replace the coal generation with natural gas-fired units.

"As emission targets continue to change, and as legislation to reduce carbon emissions appears likely, we believe it's in the best interest of our customers to invest in advanced-design, cleaner-burning generation for the future," Progress Energy Carolinas President Lloyd Yates said.

Although natural gas is a fossil fuel made up mostly of carbon, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the burning of natural gas generates 43 percent fewer carbon emissions and only a fraction of the sulfur dioxide emissions for each unit of energy produced by coal. Natural gas also generates no solid waste, unlike the massive amounts of ash from a coal plant.

aging coal fleet

With an average age of 47.1 years, TVA's fleet of 11 coal plants is the oldest of any major U.S. utility, TVA Chief Financial Officer Kim Greene said.

For its size, TVA also invested only 40 percent as much in maintaining its fossil units last year as did its biggest neighbors -- Southern Co., Progress Energy and American Electric Power.

"We really have been underinvesting in the maintenance of our plants," said Dennis Bottorff, chairman of the TVA board's finance committee.

TVA will boost its capital spending for its coal plants next year by more than a third under the fiscal 2010 budget adopted last week. Most of the capital budget for the fossil program will go toward converting six plants from wet ash storage to dry storage and adding pollution controls at the Colbert and Paradise plants.

The agency has yet to budget for any of the court-ordered scrubbers at John Sevier or Widows Creek, suggesting that TVA may opt to shut down the units instead of making the improvements.

"We're having to give up important projects that we would love to invest in next year," Ms. Greene said. "We just can't afford to do everything we want in this environment."