Coal power: TVA agrees to phase out 18 units, shift to cleaner fuels

Tennessee Valley Authority says it will phase out 18 older coal-fired generators at three power plants by 2020. Natural-gas and biomass units will replace the coal power as part of a TVA settlement over clean-air violations.

David J. Phillip/AP/File
This March 16 photo shows piles of coal at NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station in Thompsons, Texas. The plant, which operates natural gas and coal-fired units, is one of the largest power plants in the United States. The Tennessee Valley Authority said Thursday it plans to close 18 older coal-fired power generators at three plants by 2020.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, one of America's largest utilities, said Thursday it plans to close 18 older coal-fired power generators at three plants as part of a court settlement in which it will pay $10 million in fines for violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

When completed, the shutdowns will be one of the largest single closures of coal-fired units since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began, in the 1990s, to require emissions controls on older plants, observers say. The plan also marks a shift toward cleaner forms of energy, company officials said.

As it phases out the coal generators by 2020, TVA will replace them with modern natural-gas and biomass-fired power plants, cutting emissions of smog and acid-rain forming gases and slashing greenhouse-gas emissions. The company also will pay to improve energy efficiency across the region.

The impact of the closures will be felt in a number of states and national parks. Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina had supported the EPA lawsuit, along with the National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. Thursday's announcement ends a decade-long court battle.

"For decades, the Smoky Mountains [National Park] has suffered from a slow motion crisis," said Don Barger, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "Air pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants has degraded scenic vistas, damaged plant species, and impaired human health. Today’s settlement halts that trend and sends us in the right direction."

In its announcement, TVA said the closures – at two plants in Tennessee and one in Alabama – will help it reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, by 97 percent from 1977 levels. It will also curb nitrogen-oxide emissions that help form smog by 95 percent from 1995 levels.

About 2,700 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation will be permanently retired, and in its place will come low-emission or zero-emission electricity sources, including renewable energy, natural gas, nuclear power, and energy efficiency.

"Diversity proved to be the most prudent course in meeting future energy needs in all the various future scenarios we studied," said Tom Kilgore, TVA president and CEO, said in a statement. "A variety of electricity sources, rather than heavy reliance on any single source, reduces long-term risks and helps keep costs steady and predictable."

The shift is not expected to significantly increase electric rates, he indicated.

"In the longer term, these actions reinforce our vision to keep bills low, keep our service reliability high and further improve air quality as we modernize the TVA power system," Mr. Kilgore said.

The settlement is a big win for the EPA, which led the charge in court against clean air violations at 11 of TVA's coal-fired plants in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The shift by TVA could be a national bellwether, say environmentalists.

"Today's landmark agreement is a game changer for how we power our homes and businesses in the Southeast," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement. "By phasing out the most dangerous coal plants and charting a course focused on less pollution and more clean energy, TVA is demonstrating that we don’t have to choose between clean air and affordable energy – we can and must have both."

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