East Tennessee vs. Earth: Power Production

How TVA's reliance on coal-fired power plants continues to create massive air pollution and despoiled land

Ah, another Earth Day. Time for feel-good features on the local news about greenways or compost or community gardens. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Legislature can't even bring itself to vote on a bill against mountaintop-removal mining, the U.S. Senate is dragging its heels on carbon-emissions cap-and-trade legislation, and East Tennesseans are driving our gas-guzzling cars and stoking our coal-fired power plants more enthusiastically than ever. So forgive us for passing on the usual green-colored glasses. This year, we decided to look at some of the things we're still doing to despoil our little patch of planet, and what we should be doing about them: Transportation, Power Production, Energy Consumption, and Growth and Development.


The Problem:

Coal is the country's most abundant energy resource. At current rates of consumption, estimates say the U.S. has enough to power itself for 200 to 300 years, and even many of those opposed to its use acknowledge its abundance means it will be with us for some time to come.

But coal comes with a lot of baggage. From the Kingston ash spill in 2008, to the ongoing effort to ban mountaintop-removal mining, to the recent West Virginia mine deaths, there have been steady reminders recently that this source carries costs from the cradle to the grave, many of them not reflected by its relatively cheap price in commodity markets.

When coal is burned, it releases things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates that have been linked to acid rain and respiratory illnesses. It also releases mercury, shown to cause neurological damage to animals and humans. Last but not least, coal-fired plants release vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emission produced in energy consumption.

Decisions over how we power our homes and buildings feel largely beyond our control. We have some choice in how much energy we use, but we have little say over how that energy's created. That's left to multi-billion-dollar utilities saddled with legacy debt and infrastructure costs, and to politicians whose campaigns are funded in part by the very companies whose profits are jeopardized by laws they would create. It is not a situation that inspires a great deal of confidence in timely reform.

Worst Offender:

In East Tennessee, the milieu is complicated still by an acronym we're all intimately familiar with: TVA. Governed by federal regulatory committees in the House and Senate, by its corporate board, appointed by the president, and by decisions made throughout its 77-year history, TVA feels uniquely monstrous and inert. But its federal structure also means TVA can serve as a proxy for national energy policy, and that by examining it, we can glean some understanding of both where we as a region stand and of where the country as a whole might be headed. As the country's largest utility, TVA produces power from a variety of sources for its 158 local distributors. According to the company's annual report, this is how its mix broke down in 2009:

—46% coal-fired

—32% Nuclear

—13% purchased power

—7% hydro

—2% Combustion turbines, diesel, and renewables

These figures vary somewhat year to year, but the takeaway is that about 40 percent of TVA's energy is low-emissions or emissions-free—derived from nuclear, dams, and renewables (which constitute only a fraction of a percent). That leaves the majority, around 60 percent, to come from emissions-heavy fossil fuels, specifically coal. (Natural gas is used principally for meeting extraordinary demand on the system and not for base-load generation.)

What We're Doing About It:

At some expense, TVA has retrofitted dozens of boilers at its 11 coal-fired plants with scrubbers and controls to capture many of these harmful by-products and burn more efficiently. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says the utility deserves credit for that; however, he also says some of the boilers at these plants, many of which are approaching 50 years of age, are coming to a point where they're not worth the millions required to retrofit them.

With no currently available means for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide, an aging coal-burning infrastructure, and the likelihood that emissions will be taxed in some way in the coming years, TVA is at something of a crossroads as it looks toward investing in its next generation of energy infrastructure. How will TVA adapt to meet growing demand?

So far, the answer looks to be more nuclear: TVA was the first utility to bring a reactor on line in the 21st century with Browns Ferry I in 2003, and will soon add the second unit at Watts Bar to its base generating capacity. Through its loan guarantee program, the Obama administration has signaled it broadly supports building new nuclear plants, an approach that has strong bipartisan support.

Yet TVA has gone down this road before—in the 1960s and '70s it set out to build 17 nuclear reactors; of those, seven were completed (including the two in recent years), miring the company in billions in debt. Smith worries the agency could once again make this mistake, hobbling itself from moving toward renewable technologies and efficiency programs.

And this speaks to a larger point about the energy industry: Change occurs over decades, not years. Decisions made by TVA a half century ago are still with us today, and those made in the coming years will reverberate a half century from now. That's why energy experts say it's paramount that we have the right policies in place today to push us toward a cleaner energy future.

What We Should Be Doing:

According to Thom Mason, lab director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the most important thing we can do now to affect those long-term production decisions is to fix a price on carbon emissions.

Congress is moving generally in that direction: Last summer, the House passed a climate bill with a cap and trade system (despite all of East Tennessee's representatives voting against it). This would put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and issue permits to companies that need to exceed their limit. As the total allowable limit is ratcheted down each year, emissions would be drastically scaled back while driving investment in cleaner technologies, or so the theory goes. This week the Senate's comprehensive climate proposal is expected to be unveiled, although it's still unclear whether a cap and trade system will be part of the package. Sen. Lamar Alexander has expressed disdain for a cap and trade scheme, saying it would cost consumers too much. A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Corker said he "strongly opposes the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer climate bills," because they would expand government and reward "special interests."

Aside from putting a price on carbon, Smith would like to see a strong renewable portfolio standard as part of the deal, something the House bill included but the Senate may not. This would require TVA to produce a certain percentage of its energy from renewables like solar, wind, and bioenergy. He believes "anything less than 10 percent is kind of a joke," and says it's possible for TVA to produce as much as 20 percent of its power from these sources.

While a price on carbon and a renewable standard could work to create long-term changes in energy production, the name of the game for now is energy efficiency. We're well overdue: The U.S. consumes about one-quarter of the world's energy yet holds only 5 percent of its population, and in the South we're among the worst of the worst, consuming 43 percent of U.S. energy but housing only 36 percent of its population.

Smith says TVA can meet all load growth in the foreseeable future through aggressive energy efficiency programs, and both Mason and Smith want to see TVA make smart meters available to consumers. These would allow consumers to know when electricity is most in demand by charging different rates over the course of the day, the idea being to encourage consumers to avoid high-energy activities in the middle of the day when demand is greatest. By allowing consumers to understand the connection between demand and cost, TVA could avoid having to buy power from other utilities and investing in expensive peak-shaving energy infrastructure.