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Tina Casey headshot

Despite Pressure to Save Coal, Tennessee Pivots to Clean Power

By Tina Casey

The COVID-19 crisis is likely to delay renewable energy development in the U.S., but evidence is growing that the setback will be temporary. In fact, businesses seeking more clean power can look forward to new opportunities as energy companies continue to adapt to a new energy future. A recent decision of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) exemplifies the pivot to renewables.

TVA has been slow on the wind and solar uptake…

The latest development in that area comes from the sprawling TVA.

TVA holds a unique position among electricity providers in the U.S. as the linchpin of a federal rural economic development initiative that launched during the Great Depression. The federally-owned corporation currently serves 10 million people in parts of seven southeastern states, including practically all of Tennessee, making it the largest public utility in the nation.

That means TVA wields an outsized impact on energy policy, and critics have pointed out that its activities in the wind and solar areas have been relatively unambitious. However, one limiting factor is its unique history, which has provided the power generation giant with a long-term legacy in hydropower and nuclear.

Despite political pressure to keep its coal power plants running, TVA has also been pivoting to natural gas while shuttering its coal units. Now, coal accounts for only 15 percent of total power generation at TVA, down from almost 60 percent in 2007.

All in all, that doesn’t leave much wiggle room for clean power technologies such as wind and solar. In fact, TVA itself foresees only 10 percent of its capacity coming from wind and solar by 2030.

…But change is in the wind

That may disappoint wind and solar fans, but TVA is seeking other ways to provide businesses in the region with more clean power.

Last August, TVA proposed a new flexibility plan that would enable local power companies to generate up to 5 percent of their own power locally, while reducing their intake from TVA.

The new plan would complement other clean power initiatives for businesses and help local power companies steer more renewable energy to specific businesses, in addition to adding more renewables to the general grid mix.

The TVA's headquarters in Knoxville, TN. Image credit: Brian Stansberry/Wiki Commons
TVA's headquarters in Knoxville, TN. Image credit: Brian Stansberry/Wiki Commons

Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters in Knoxville, TN. Image credit: Brian Stansberry/Wiki Commons

Currently, 138 local power companies on TVA’s roster are eligible for the plan. All but three have expressed interest. The 5 percent cap may seem like a baby step, but the potential impact on renewable energy investment in the region could be significant.

TVA estimates that if all 154 of its local power companies participate in the flexibility plan at the maximum of 5 percent, the result would be a total of 800 megawatts in new capacity — and none of it will come from coal.

That’s because the TVA plan specifically excludes coal, and diesel as well.

The plan does permit natural gas. However, in a sign of strength for the renewable energy movement, TVA’s local power companies have expressed far more interest in solar. According to TVA, the breakdown could be up to 90 percent of the new capacity for solar and only 10 percent for gas.

In that context, it’s worth noting that TVA has worked with Facebook, Google and other top renewable energy purchasers in the region, and it is expanding its activities with other major customers that are hungry for renewables.

One of TVA’s key partners in that effort is Tennessee-based Silicon Ranch, a leading solar developer in which Royal Dutch Shell is a major stakeholder.

Virus or not, TVA pushes the distributed clean power envelope

The new flexibility plan also represents another key step in the movement to replace large centralized power plants with locally produced, distributed energy resources.

Distributed energy can generally refer to any power source, but the primary focus is on wind and solar. These two renewables are already beginning to transform the nation’s power grid, and they are an important feature in the U.S. Department of Energy’s grid modernization initiative.

Despite rising concerns over the spread of COVID-19, in February TVA reaffirmed its support for the proposed flexibility plan and distributed energy as important features within its overall plans for renewables.

Even as COVID-19 sent the U.S. into an economic tailspin, TVA continued to press forward with the flexibility plan. The agency took another step on April 3, when it announced that it was seeking public comment for an environmental assessment of the local impacts of distributed energy resources.

The announcement also fleshed out TVA’s commitment to the distributed energy trend.

“Enabling power supply flexibility supports TVA’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan and the utility’s strategic financial plan,” TVA explained. “Both plans anticipate a future in which distributed generation will continue to grow to help reduce carbon emissions.”

In a curious coincidence of timing, President Trump directed the media spotlight towards TVA just a few days later, during a news conference on April 8, when he criticized the salary of its president and CEO, Jeff Lyash.

The reason for the sudden outburst remains a mystery, though it’s possible that the president may still bear a grudge over TVA’s decision to close the Paradise coal power plant in Kentucky. TVA announced the closure last year and finalized the action in February, despite Trump’s personal intervention in the matter.

Regardless of the reason, by drawing attention to this groundbreaking energy giant, the president has also helped to raise awareness about agency’s commitment to helping its customers transition to clean power, and that’s a good thing.

Image credit: Billy Hathorn/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey