TVA pitches a 5,000-MW clean energy plan

Google is now 100% powered by renewable energy thanks to Origis Energy and TVA. (Courtesy: TVA)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The nation’s largest public utility is seeking proposals for what would be one of the biggest recent swings at adding carbon-free electricity in the U.S., laying out a mix-and-match of possibilities that range from solar to nuclear.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s request for proposals seeks up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free energy before 2029. It’s the first request that nuclear industry experts know of that pairs new nuclear technologies with wind and solar.

Other options are also available, including hydroelectric, geothermal and battery energy storage systems. The Nuclear Energy Institute said that while it’s a first, other utilities envision this type of future and the trade association expects to see a steady increase in new nuclear energy procurements like this.

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The move comes juxtaposed with the federal utility’s lingering proposal to shut down the massive coal-fired Cumberland Fossil Plant in Tennessee and replace it with natural gas, which would put the utility out of step with President Joe Biden’s administration goal of a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed concern along these lines and urged TVA to consider other options. TVA’s final decision is expected in the coming months.

The new request-for-proposal would be one of the country’s biggest recent carbon-free energy additions. California regulators approved a February plan for additional 25,500 megawatts from renewable energy and 15,000 Megawatts in new storage resources. This will be in addition to the previously approved plan for California in February.

Proposals for TVA’s plan must be submitted by Oct. 19, with selected projects to be announced in spring 2023. They don’t need to be located within TVA’s service area, which includes Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states. Don Moul, TVA chief operating officer, said any nuclear power for the proposal would rely on existing plants, calling the initiative a tool for “near-term” additions to its portfolio.

“We’ve opened up the aperture to not only renewables — solar, wind, battery storage — but we’re also looking at any other source that’s carbon free,” Moul told The Associated Press. “That could be existing nuclear. That could also include existing hydro. Whatever can be delivered to our service territory at a price, and with the reliability level that meets our needs, is fair game.”

Utility officials have already announced plans to add 10,000 megawatts to their system by 2035. They have worked with several industrial customers who want to be connected to renewables. They have also been focusing on helping the region switch from carbon-emitting vehicles to electric vehicles. They have established charging stations, shifted its workforce fleet to electric, as well as worked together to promote economic development and bring large-scale electric vehicle projects into the region.

Still, concerns have grown about TVA’s timeline for cutting down on climate change-causing releases into the air. TVA has set a goal for greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% by 2035 as compared with 2005 levels. Jeff Lyash, TVA CEO, has stated that TVA will not be capable of meeting the goal of 100% reduction without technological advances such as energy storage, carbon capture, and small modular nuclear reactors. Instead, he wants to achieve 80%. The utility has its own goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The conflict over TVA’s timeline has been front and center in its plan to turn the Cumberland Fossil Plant, its biggest coal-fired plant at an output of 2,470 megawatts, into a natural gas plant. TVA has described natural gases as a bridge to more sustainable energy.

An environmental lawyer stated Tuesday that TVA must abandon its natural gas plant plans if it wants to be a leader in clean energy.

“We’re encouraged to see TVA exploring affordable, available carbon-free energy, but the fact remains that TVA has also proposed the nation’s largest investment in new fossil fuel plants and pipelines, to the tune of billions of dollars,” said Amanda Garcia, Tennessee director for Southern Environmental Law Center.

A rendering of the 40 MWh Vonore Battery Energy Storage System– the first battery storage system to be owned and operated by TVA. The facility is expected operational by 2022. (Courtesy: TVA)

Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency expressed concern during a public comment period that the coal-to-gas switch-out preference “did not consider important, available mitigation options to reduce impacts from (greenhouse gas) emissions.” It suggested looking into running the plant at least partly with “clean hydrogen,” installing additional equipment to capture carbon at the plant, or building a smaller natural gas plant paired with renewables, energy efficiency measures, energy storage, or other options.

The EPA stated that TVA had not fully disclosed the effects of greenhouse gases for any of the options or the modeling and underlying assumptions.

“The EPA believes it is essential for TVA to improve the proposed action and (environmental impact statement) because of the urgency of the climate crisis,” the EPA wrote. “Overlooked options for TVA to take meaningful, cost-effective action to reduce GHG emissions can help conform TVA’s action to science-driven policy goals.”

Moul said TVA will evaluate comments from the EPA and others and factor them into the utility’s decision-making process.


Jennifer McDermott, Providence, Rhode Island, contributed this report. Sainz reported in Memphis, Tennessee.