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Dan Firth

As the world's top climate scientists released the IPCC 6 report documenting the catastrophic harms of climate change, offering irrefutable evidence of human causes and calling for immediate reductions in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the Tennessee Valley Authority is doubling down on natural gas and the unproven and expensive addition of carbon capture.

At the same time, TVA overemphasizes the challenges of implementing renewable energy sources and storage, as well as making distributed energy resources such as roof top solar uneconomical for those wanting to install it. In other words, the TVA is preparing to fuel the fire of climate change.

Carbon capture is not a solution worth considering. Since carbon capture is an add-on to a new or existing plant, it will always increase the cost of energy to the customer. In contrast, the cost curve for renewables is down, meaning they get cheaper.

Carbon capture will always require significant energy to be produced for the sole purpose of operating the carbon capture process. There is no technological way around this fact. This energy must either come from renewables or natural gas. If natural gas, then environmental destruction, pollution and environmental justice problems will continue. Renewables are better used to replace gas directly.

Carbon capture will always require significant infrastructure to process and sequester the captured carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide cannot be sequestered just anywhere. Appropriate geological formations are required for safe and permanent sequestration. As a result, scrubbing processes, pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure are required adding cost, environmental justice and safety concerns to the approach.

Carbon capture does not reduce the upstream damage and pollution resulting from natural gas production necessary to feed the gas plants. Fracking used to produce natural gas is a land intensive, destructive and polluting process. Fracked well production declines 70% in the first 12 months, requiring an ever-increasing number of wells drilled to replace the depleted ones. The affected lands are left unusable.

Fracking also requires the use of highly toxic chemicals injected into the ground to fracture or crack the geologic features to release the natural gas. These operations have damaged and contaminated drinking water resources. The contaminated production water must be disposed of in injection wells shown to cause earthquakes and contaminate drinking water. Cleaning the water is uneconomical. Methane, with an 86 times higher greenhouse gas potential in the short-term, will leak. Failures will occur.

Carbon capture does not alleviate environmental justice problems. Natural gas plants are typically constructed in low-income and minority communities. Adding carbon capture to these plants does not alleviate the harms imposed on these communities. Pipelines, compressor stations and other infrastructure required for the transmission of natural gas and the subsequent carbon dioxide are typically located in these communities subjecting the residents to undue risks and hazards.

TVA must change course and choose renewables and storage over natural gas with carbon capture if it is to be part of the solution. Many utilities around the world have successfully implemented greater percentages of renewable energy than TVA. TVA can do it as well. The alternative is pollution, excessive rates and adverse impacts on communities caused both directly and by the subsequent global warming.

Dan Firth of Kingsport, Tennessee, is a chemist who works on water quality, energy, solid waste and mining issues across Tennessee and the greater central Appalachia region with the Sierra Club.

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