TVA to Close Coal Plants, Cut Carbon Emissions

As part of its new ten-year plan, the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to retire at least 1,000 megawatts of coal energy (and emissions that come with burning coal) by the year 2015. This amounts to about 7% of TVA’s total coal fired capacity, and represents a good first step for this federally owned energy supplier that controls a sizable fraction of the eastern US coal fleet.

TVA’s actions should call into question why other power suppliers like the Northwest’s Portland General Electric keep insisting they can’t get their own dirty and outdated coal plants offline on a similar timeframe. In explaining the government corporation’s move to cut out a chunk of its coal power, TVA President Tom Kilgore cited a desire for TVA to lead the way on sources of energy that come with far fewer carbon emissions than coal. It seems TVA is coming to recognize an inevitability which utilities across the country should take note of: coal power, associated with high levels of carbon emissions and other pollutants, is on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

Not all provisions of TVA’s new ten-year plan will please environmentalists. Though it plans to replace some coal capacity with increased energy efficiency, TVA also announced plans to move ahead with two new nuclear reactors. Perhaps it would have been wiser to invest instead in solar power and other types of renewable energy, which are now becoming cost-competitive with nuclear plants in the southern United States. Before (and if) the new nuclear units are completed, TVA will doubtless have to negotiate heavy opposition from environmental groups. Nuclear power is not clean, and is not an environmentally responsible replacement for coal.

Yet while new nuclear plants should and almost certainly will be fought by environmental groups, organizations and individuals concerned about the climate should cheer the retirement of at least some of TVA’s coal plants. Though TVA hasn’t announced exactly which coal-fired units will be shut down, candidates are likely to include some of the oldest and dirtiest members of the fleet. This move will not only eliminate major sources of carbon emissions from the South, but will reduce air pollution and improve public health.

TVA’s announcement is just the latest in a wave of recent plans to shut down or at least temporarily idle US coal plants over the next several years. In May, American Electric Power said it would take 1,925 megawatts worth of coal power offline for all but three months of the year. Earlier this month FirstEnergy Corporation announced it will idle 1,620 megawatts of coal power, partly in anticipation of a possible federal crackdown on pollution from coal plants.

In total, at least 27,000 megawatts of coal power are likely to be removed from the grid in the US within five years or sooner. That in itself hardly represents the end of coal in this country, as it is still just a small fraction of the US coal fleet. But the recent actions of power providers like TVA give an encouraging glimpse of what’s to come. If other utilities follow suit, coal’s rule over the US power sector could indeed be nearing an end.

Photo credit: TVA Web Team

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change.