TVA's Green Power Switch?

After decades of animosity, the federal power company and its environmental critics find some accord on clean energy

The first Tennessee Valley Authority department that Gil Hough ever dealt with was the TVA Police.

Before that encounter was over, he was in handcuffs and deposited in the Rhea County jail, along with dozens of fellow protesters who had started their day by trying to block the entrance to the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, outside of Spring City. Hough, now a renewable energy manager for an Oak Ridge firm, still treasures the memory of that time not long before he got married and started a family: "Being arrested for something you believe in is a great way to make great friends," he says.

Later that day in May, 15 years ago, while Hough settled into a cell, Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 became the last commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. to come online in the 20th century.

Dr. John Nolt was at some of the series of Watts Bar protests that spring, but was never arrested. Although for many years an outspoken and very visible opponent of TVA's nuclear program, he says he happened to not be at the particular demonstration that spring when some TVA property damage occurred. However, soon after that incident, Karen, his wife at the time, was visited at home by two men from TVA's Office of the Inspector General. Nolt recalls that right after they left, Karen called him at UT, where he was teaching a class on environmental ethics. She said that the officers asked lots of pointed questions about her husband's involvement in the protests, including the property damage. They left after asking one more question: How much was the Nolts' house worth? Fifteen years later, the philosophy professor still marvels at the visit: "It was clearly an intimidation tactic to try to end my involvement in the protests."

According to him, it didn't work.

For Don Safer, the acrimony between TVA and its anti-nuclear critics reached its peak at a public hearing in Knoxville in 1997 on options for disposing of nuclear waste from the nuclear power plants that it had already begun building, despite persistent public opposition. "It could've been my age, but we felt so frustrated," says the now-retired chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council. "They were asking us what to do with the waste rather than whether we should even have a nuclear program." In his public comments at the microphone, Safer told the TVA Board that the hearing was "like Hitler asking the Jews whether they want to go by train or bus to the concentration camps."

By the time the TVA board was ready to vote on loading the first nuclear fuel rods into the Watts Bar reactor, activists who felt unheard at the public hearings were showing up in large numbers at the board meetings. A 68-year-old grandmother was so concerned that the board would ignore the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's unresolved safety concerns at the unit that she tried to say as much to the board at the beginning of that meeting, without having permission by the board to speak. When TVA police moved to arrest her for disrupting the meeting, her son stood up and said, "Stop, don't hurt her." Mother and son were then both taken into custody.

In the 1970s, TVA Chairman Aubrey Wagner seemed to sum up the prevailing attitude (at least as perceived by TVA's critics) of the nation's largest publicly-owned power company toward public opinion. Reacting to the first contentious and emotional public hearings on TVA's emerging nuclear program, he said, "If we built [coal and hydro] power plants this way, we'd still be operating by kerosene lamps."

It was not that long ago that finding an environmentalist to say anything nice about TVA was about as difficult as finding a safe place for the mountains of coal ash heaping up around TVA power plants. And yet, the country's largest public power company seems to be taking a more serious look at cleaner and greener ways of meeting increasing demand for electricity. "Serious" in this case means taking the unprecedented step of mothballing three or more coal-fired boilers and replacing much of that energy output with at least a token amount of solar and wind sources, as well as through deep cuts in demand for megawatts through energy-efficiency programs. [Download a PDF of "TVA Power: The Big Picture" for a chart showing how the company utilizes different power sources.]

At first glance, it's as if TVA asked the region's clean-energy and conservation advocates to help the federal power company write their plan for how to meet the demand for electricity over the next 20 years. In fact, to a limited extent, that is just what happened. Since TVA sought public feedback last fall on its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the comments from green activists, perhaps summed up as "Wait a minute!" in all previous years, now sound just a little more like "Way to go." At least, up to a point. Clearly, there are still chasms separating veteran green-power advocates and TVA staff, whom the greens still perceive as having an overwhelming bias for nuclear power, which soon overtakes coal as TVA's primary energy source in most planning scenarios.

Still, how did these historically intractable opponents get to the point where they are at least beginning to admit to a strip of common ground? And is the country's largest public power company beginning to take its public, and its public role, more seriously?

Old King Coal is a Dirty Old Soul

A visit to TVA's Web page for the Kingston Fossil Plant is as informative for what it says as for what it doesn't say. According to the site, when Kingston came online in 1955, it was the largest coal-burning power plant in the world—a distinction it held for 10 years. It also says that today the plant consumes about 14,000 tons of coal a day when operating at full power. A click on a thumbnail brings up a simplified diagram of a coal-fired plant, with drawings of blue water piped into a red boiler, where it turns to white steam piped through a turbine connected to a generator, which is connected to a pink transformer and yellow transmission lines. The diagram also shows a black smokestack puffing out two tiny puffs of white smoke and grayish-black hills of "Fuel Supply (coal)" being fed into the boiler.

Absent from the diagram is any indication of ash.

Even since the Kingston coal ash disaster, the most immediate images that come to mind for most Tennesseeans when you say "TVA" might still be the ubiquitous lakes and dams. Nevertheless, coal-fired power generation has dominated TVA's resource portfolio since the 1950s. It was not until the Environmental Protection Agency began writing and enforcing regulations and requiring permits and imposing fines under the federal Clean Air Act that U.S. power companies first contemplated phasing out coal. Acid rain and smog were coal's original regulatory demons. Retrofitting plants with smokestack scrubbers and other pricey clean-air equipment to remove sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and various toxic heavy metals from the coal smoke was already taking a serious toll on the bottom line of coal plant owners. Then climate science served notice that coal-plant carbon emissions are key contributors to global warming, setting up anticipation of even more costly regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.

Then the insolent awakening came at 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2008: One billion gallons of toxic ash sludge from the Kingston Fossil Plant breached a containment pond dike and slid out over 300 acres of the Emory River and the surrounding community. Not including lawsuits, TVA will spend over $1 billion on clean-up efforts by the time it is completed in two more years. Beyond clean-up, millions are being spent to convert at least five "wet ash" storage ponds to purportedly safer "dry ash" storage systems. Meanwhile, the EPA is expected to come out soon with new regulations that could classify coal ash as hazardous waste, making its disposal much more costly.

If nothing else, the Kingston spill must have accelerated the timeline for ending coal's reign as energy king in the Valley. For TVA, nuclear power has been waiting in the wings for decades to take over as the primary energy source, notwithstanding mushrooming construction and liability costs, unresolved waste issues, and public skepticism. In a climate of heavy regulation of air emissions and new headaches with ash, a power producer that finds itself with the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the country is a power producer that finds itself with the largest fleet of power plants with zero regulated air emissions. And no ash. Even with six surviving nuclear reactors out of the 17 originally attempted, and as many as three more that could be finished out in 10 years or less, to some TVA managers it might seem that a program that had so many jokers in its deck was finally turning up a few aces at the table.

Yet there were other players at the table who were not ready to leave.

In the Door and On the Ground

Gil Hough, whose first encounter with TVA landed him in jail, has not been in the habit of describing the power giant as a promoter of renewable energy. "Barrier" is actually the term Hough was more apt to apply during most of his decade and a half as a staff member of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. In that job as a renewable energy advocate, he probably attended the majority of public meetings TVA held after his brief jail stay in 1996. Along with the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Environmental Council, SACE insisted for years that wind and solar were more environmentally sound energy sources than anything in TVA's existing portfolio, and for that reason should have a place in the region's energy mix. But it wasn't an eco-argument that would ultimately crack the TVA code.

"It was only when we showed them surveys we did of TVA customers who said they would buy renewable power at a premium—that's when they finally started paying attention," Hough says. "It had nothing to do with clean air or developing new green-power industries like those that were taking off in other states."

TVA confirmed the results with its own customer surveys and focus groups, which resulted in the launch of Green Power Switch in 2001. The program enables customers to be billed an extra $4 a month for every 150-kilowatt-hour block they purchase, which represents the more expensively produced electricity TVA now purchases from various wind and solar sources; 12,000 business and residential customers now participate in the program. Hough describes Green Power Switch as "TVA taking its first baby steps away from being a barrier and toward being an enabler of true clean energy."

While the nonprofit greens were at the Summit Hill towers trying to get renewable and clean energy in the TVA door, the for-profit greens were on the ground—actually the roofs—putting in solar panels wherever the true believers would have them.

"In the early days nobody was doing it for money," says David Bolt, founder of Sustainable Future, a budding local solar technology and energy efficiency company now in its sixth year. Bolt describes himself at the time as a solar "pioneer who was ready to do something" in the days before tax credits and government grants that now pay for 30 percent or more of a solar project's cost. With no power purchase contracts with the power company available and no permission to hook into the power company's grid, Bolt says that pricey off-grid solar photovoltaic systems were the only installation option. With 50-year payback periods, they made no economic sense. But Bolt and other eco-pioneers built them anyway. He explains that although environmental ethics played into it, the early demand for solar was as much about hipster affluence, "just like some people want granite countertops."

The accelerating Green Power Switch participation rates and a burgeoning wind and solar industry in other parts of the country helped spur TVA's next phase of renewable energy development. The Generation Partners program established the technical support and financial incentives that would eventually aid the explosive growth in the region's renewables industry, to the point where the program temporarily became a victim of its own success.

Protocols were arranged to connect a home or commercial solar system to the power-company grid. Once hooked up to the rest of the electricity universe, the standard contract enabled the individual system owner to sell the excess power they produced to TVA at a TVA-set price, above the retail price the utility company charged its customers. Technically speaking, at this point TVA no longer had a monopoly on producing and selling electricity in the Tennessee Valley, though as homeowners, most participants were not in that business in the early program days. But by early last year, when TVA had set a more attractive premium rate (12 cents per kilowatt-hour above the retail rate) and began approving program participation in advance, investors perked up and access to outside financing became much easier. New federal renewable-energy grants and steadily decreasing prices for solar panels put icing on the cake. With payback periods on some systems now calculated to be as short as five years, the applications flooded in for commercial projects, including at least one 1 megawatt solar farm in Strawberry Plains, its sole purpose being to generate electricity to sell back to the grid, i.e. TVA. The deluge threatened to bust TVA's budget for the program and a time-out was called. Solar developers were nonplussed until Generation Partners 2.0 was rolled out last summer, with a stated commitment to continue welcoming solar, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass projects up to 200 kilowatts of generating capacity. Larger renewables projects would be channeled into a less generous (per kilowatt-hour) but more sustainable Renewable Standard Offer program.

According to SACE, the number of solar installation companies in TVA's service area has grown from "a handful" when Generation Partners was launched in 2003 to over 40 today.

According to the Pew Center for the States, jobs in Tennessee's clean-energy sector grew seven times faster than the state's overall jobs between 1998 and 2007.

Integrating the Resource Plan

For all of the explosive growth in the region's renewable energy sector, its 60 megawatts of total generating capacity is a grain of sand on TVA's 36,000-megawatt beach, most of which is still coal. If TVA was already edging away from coal, the Kingston ash spill gave Sens. Lamar Alexander and Barbara Boxer an excuse to shove them in that direction. By the time their Environment and Public Works Committee finished publicly grilling TVA chief Tom Kilgore in the aftermath of the billion-gallon toxic-sludge disaster, it was clear that TVA would need to take the environmental community even more seriously than it already did.

One month before the Kingston spill, Randy Johnson became TVA's senior project manager in charge of shepherding the process of mapping out the company's environmental and energy future. Most of his previous 20 years of TVA service had been as an engineer in the Fossil Division. The first thing he says about the Integrated Resource Plan is that the process is "much more transparent, and involving the public in the planning." More so than anything TVA has done previously, he says. To underline his point, Johnson mentions that everyone on the Stakeholder Review Group that was assembled for the process was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement so that frank discussions could take place. "All but a couple people signed," says Johnson. "So the few times that we wanted to share sensitive information, we asked [the non-signers] to leave the room, and they agreed."

Over the last 18 months, key environmentalists in the TVA service region were asked to serve, along with private industry and government representatives—16 members in all—on the Stakeholder Review Group. Their task has been to give input on various drafts of the document that maps out and prioritizes the various ways the utility company could produce energy over the next 20 years.

Steve Smith was a member of the Stakeholder Review Group this time as well as the last time TVA went through the IRP process in 1995. The executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says that this time around his experience has been "very different," in a good way: "In the '90s [TVA's] willingness to analyze energy efficiency as a resource was anemic at best. To their credit [this time] they've gone into deeper analysis on what they can do with energy efficiency." Smith says that overall it was a "very healthy process" and that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the outcomes, although he says that the level of apparent commitment to renewable energy is too modest compared to the potential.

On the other hand, "TVA has already decided what it's going to do," says Louise Gorenflo, who represents the Sierra Club on the Stakeholder Review Group. She thinks that the IRP process was subverted when the TVA board voted last summer, before the public-comment period on the draft IRP, to commit to increased nuclear production. While Smith is cautiously optimistic about the level of commitment to energy efficiency over the next 20 years, Gorenflo says "they are putting in a very token program of energy efficiency" in the IRP.

Randy Johnson says if the IRP process has an overriding truth, it's that "There's no perfect answer that satisfies everyone."

The potential energy mix includes more traditional sources such as hydroelectric, coal, and natural gas, as well as nuclear power and emerging solar and wind technologies. The document also considers ways to lower the demand for electricity by reducing waste through energy-efficiency programs and demand response, which charges different rates depending on time of use.

The process lifted up five different approaches for meeting TVA's energy and environmental objectives over the next two decades. Each approach emphasizes a different combination of energy sources, or a resource portfolio, ranging from a "nuclear focused" strategy of maximum nuclear expansion along with maximum idling of coal plants, to a "limited change" portfolio, which would be to stand pat with existing nuclear and coal plants and meet future demand by buying electricity as needed from power grids in other parts of the country.

After running those two particular portfolios through a complex ranking system for economic, environmental, and other risk factors, they were both thrown out. Two strategies basically tied for first place and are thus tentatively dubbed as "preferred" strategies through 2029:

STRATEGY C: Diversity Focused Resource Portfolio:

Nuclear expansion after 2018 (three new reactors) and new gas-fired capacity as needed

Increases Energy Efficiency/Demand Response programs and adds new renewables capacity (not as much as Strategy E)

Adds a pumped storage hydro unit (water stored to run generators during peak demand hours)

3,000 megawatts of coal capacity idled (boiler units within at least three coal plants shut down)

STRATEGY E: Energy Efficiency/Demand Response and Renewables Focused Resource Portfolio:

Greatest reliance on Energy Efficiency/Demand Response programs and largest portfolio of new renewables capacity of any strategy

5,000 megawatts of coal capacity idled (more coal boiler units shut down than Strategy C)

Delays nuclear expansion until 2022 (three new reactors)

The draft IRP was released last fall and five meetings were held across the region in October to receive public comment. Johnson sees a couple common threads of public sentiment woven through the hearings: "Most people want to see more renewable energy brought into the valley. There were also a lot of proponents of energy efficiency and demand response."

Johnson says the next step is to develop metrics to decide what the best elements of both strategies are, then blend them into a final recommendation. "The new strategy will have characteristics of both but will be an optimized strategy," he explains. "We want to find that sweet spot of primarily renewables and fossil layups."

Turning Green?

So, where do the well-seasoned soldiers in the clean and renewable energy army now fall in?

For all of the sword crossing Don Safer has done with TVA over the decades, he says he cannot help but think that some kind of corner is being turned, where the swords are down if not sheathed, and actual dialogue on sustainable energy use is happening. "Today it's radically different than it was back then," says the environmentalist who once likened TVA policy to running a concentration camp. "There is communication and civility in a way there wasn't before. They are really listening to what we have been saying." Safer describes the apparent commitment to mothball boilers in at least three more coal plants and to ramp up renewables and energy efficiency as "huge steps forward."

Gil Hough grudgingly admits that at least "part of me celebrates that TVA sees that renewables are real. That's incredible that they're playing ball now." But while he acknowledges "there has definitely been progress," he still has big problems with TVA's resource allocations. "I get jealous of all the money [TVA] throws at these nuclear plants when I know how cheaply we do renewables and energy efficiency," he says. "Solar is going gangbusters while nuclear keeps getting subsidies thrown at it." As the first president of the newly formed Tennessee Solar Energy Industry Association, he is sure that TVA's proposed goal of generating up to 8 percent of its electricity through renewables is far too modest. There is no question in his mind that 25 percent from renewables is achievable in 20 years if TVA had the institutional will. The question for Hough is not whether the big ship can be turned around, but now that the need for a major course correction has been entertained, can all hands get on deck to make it happen?

The Sierra Club's Louise Gorenflo says that TVA could easily ramp up energy efficiency and demand response programs to a level where nuclear expansion would not even need to be on the table, even under the highest demand forecasts for electricity. But she is also clear that "no one is saying any of the existing plants should be shut down."

Back when John Nolt was taking regular trips to Spring City to protest the start-up of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, he was sure that nuclear power was completely unnecessary. He might even have suggested as much in the environmental ethics class he taught at UT. But as he continued to study climate change data over recent years, it became clear to him that the magnitude of the problem requires a rethinking of energy strategy. "I would say I've softened on nuclear power to some extent because of the realization of how dangerous the climate situation is," he says today. "I used to think we could do it all with renewables, and at some point we may, but in practical terms it's not going to happen in the next 20 years."

Steve Smith was also arrested at Watts Bar back in the day. But since then, he like everyone else has lived through the hottest decade on record. The once outspoken critic of all nuclear power now says, "The threat of global warming is so serious that we have to put every technology on the table." But Smith is very quick to add that nuclear power "should not be at the front of the line." Smith is especially sure that TVA's renewables portfolio is still much too small. He also cites a laundry list of unresolved issues such as a lack of permanent storage of waste that remains highly radioactive for at least 100,000 years, and astronomical insurance, loan, and construction costs that have already put TVA under a staggering debt obligation that could be passed on to ratepayers. "It's a technology that in the long run does nothing to serve humanity, and the IRP doesn't change that," Smith says.

Still, it's clear that some of the most battle-hardened troops in the Green Army are conceding long-held ground to the nuclear posse. And yet it might only prove they were in the fight not just to be right, but also to do the right thing. Can the same be said of TVA?

Although a TVA senior project manager is getting ready to recommend mothballing coal plant boilers and ramping up renewables over the next 20 years, it is hard to see how the IRP's overall assumptions and recommendations are not largely the product of an institutional bias for nuclear power. But there is also no denying that a green page is being added to an energy-resource portfolio that has never had one (unless you count hydroelectricity) in its nearly 80 years of existence.

With a bit of shifting from both sides toward the center, history can also shift, and one-time enemies can become each other's loyal opposition. But no one is sitting down and no one is shutting up. And no one has gone to jail in quite awhile. And no one is reading this by a kerosene lamp. But it could be a solar-powered one soon.

In addition to being a student of regional history, Rick Held is a writer and researcher on sustainability issues at the intersection of energy, environment, economics, and democracy. He has been a longtime community organizer throughout Appalachia and a teacher of U.S Government and Economics at Austin-East High School. Most recently he has been the Sustainability Program Director for the green community and youth development organization Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development, focused on developing green jobs and energy efficiency programs in low-income neighborhoods.