Southern Environmental Law Center calls for new TVA board to pause TVA’s gas plans


TVA, a utility owned by the federal government that generates about 4% of its power from solar and wind, and about 48% from fossil-fired units, has proposed nearly 5 GW of gas units since mid-2021, according to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

An executive order from President Biden directs the federal government to “lead by example” to achieve clean electricity by 2035, yet TVA’s proposed gas plants would “continue to emit greenhouse gases long past that deadline,” SELC said in a statement.

That disconnect could be on the agenda for TVA’s next board meeting, set for February 16, when Biden’s six new TVA board appointees will take their seats and constitute a majority of the nine-person board.

Board powers

TVA’s board “must not allow these reckless gas plans to go unchecked, and should push TVA to invest in cleaner and cheaper power options,” said SELC Tennessee Office Director Amanda Garcia. “TVA’s gas plans will threaten local communities, worsen climate change, and force customers to pay higher monthly power bills to account for rising fossil fuel prices.”

Board responsibilities under the TVA Act, said an SELC spokesperson, include ensuring that TVA is following the law and acting in the best interests of ratepayers. To meet those responsibilities, the spokesperson said, the current TVA board must revoke the TVA CEO’s power to make decisions regarding the gas buildout, a power that the board granted to the CEO in 2021.

Once that power is revoked, the spokesperson said, the board will have approval power over TVA’s decisions, and board members can vote not to fund or approve projects.

Three gas projects

A number of citizens’ groups, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have challenged TVA’s plans for three gas generation projects.

SELC’s lawsuit challenges a proposed 550 MW of gas units at TVA’s Johnsonville site in Tennessee, claiming that TVA failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Sierra Club and other organizations had shown, the lawsuit says, that solar, storage and demand response could provide “the same reliable, cost-effective energy” as the gas units. The federal lawsuit asks the court to enjoin further construction and operation of the project until TVA has met the NEPA requirements.

A proposed 1450 MW gas unit to replace one of two coal units at TVA’s Cumberland coal plant in Tennessee, greenlighted earlier this month by TVA CEO Jeff Lyash, still depends on approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a proposed 32-mile gas pipeline that would deliver fuel to the site.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has asked FERC to evaluate whether that pipeline is needed, by using current data to evaluate whether solar, wind, energy efficiency and storage would be a better option for replacing the existing coal plant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SACE reported, similarly recommended in its comments to FERC that TVA “transparently disclose its modeling methodologies and assumptions to better enable a comparison between the alternatives.”

SELC calls for TVA’s board to stop plans for the Cumberland gas project until TVA fulfills its legal requirements under NEPA, including giving fair consideration to clean energy alternatives, said a spokesperson.

TVA had not yet begun planning to solicit construction proposals for the Cumberland gas project as of last week, according to reporting by Dave Flessner for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Center for Biological Diversity is tracking another proposed 1450 MW gas plant at TVA’s Kingston site in Tennessee, that is “following the same trajectory” as the Cumberland project, and would require a 117-mile pipeline, said Gabriela Sarri-Tobar, an energy justice campaigner with the organization. TVA has not yet released a draft environmental review for the Kingston project.

TVA announced 1500 MW of new gas capacity in 2021 to replace retiring gas units at sites in Alabama and Kentucky, Sarri-Tobar said. TVA issued a “carbon-free” RFP for up to 5,000 MW of generating capacity last July, she added.

Concerns over TVA’s planned gas additions date back at least to 2019, when SACE contested TVA’s modeling for its most recent resource plan that used high projected costs for solar and low costs for methane gas, and capped modeled solar installations at 500 MW per year.

Looking ahead

Last June, the Center for Biological Diversity, anticipating new Biden appointees to TVA’s board, published a “roadmap” showing how board members could “drive the nation’s largest public power provider to 100% renewable energy.” Beyond retiring coal plants and ceasing development of gas plants, the report advises immediately launching TVA’s next resource planning process, and partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to expand renewable and distributed energy resources.

TVA’s next board meeting on February 16 is expected to be open to public attendance and live-streamed as well, said Sarri-Tobar with the Center. For recent meetings, the TVA board has held an in-person listening session at a location in TVA’s service area shortly prior to the board meeting.

TVA provides electricity for 153 local power companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states, as well as directly to 58 large industrial customers and federal installations.

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