Largest Federal Utility Chooses Gas, Undermining Biden’s Climate Goals

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2022

President Biden wants electricity generated from wind, solar and other clean sources. The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to invest in fossil fuels instead.

Transmission lines leading from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant in West Paducah, Ky. The T.V.A. plans to invest in natural gas to replace its aging power plants that run on coal.
Ryan Hermens/The Paducah Sun, via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest federally owned utility plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in new gas-burning electric plants, despite President Biden’s commitment to swiftly move away from fossil fuels and eliminate greenhouse gases from the power sector in a little more than a decade.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to nearly 10 million people across the Southeast, is replacing aging power plants that run on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But critics say substituting gas for coal would lock in decades of additional carbon dioxide emissions that are heating the planet and could be avoided by generating more electricity from solar, wind or another renewable source.

It marks the second time in recent months that a federal entity has clashed with Mr. Biden’s climate agenda. The United States Postal Service is replacing 165,000 aging mail trucks with mostly gasoline-powered vehicles, despite the desire of the White House and leading Democrats to convert the fleet to all-electric vehicles.

It raises the question of whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grand 20th-century experiment with electrification can adapt to a 21st-century climate crisis that requires a radical rethinking of energy production.

Like the Postal Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority is an independent organization governed by a board of directors made up of presidential appointees. And in both cases, the board is dominated by members nominated by former President Donald J. Trump, who frequently mocked climate science and was an ally of the fossil fuel industry.

In its deliberations about replacing coal-fired generators, the T.V.A. found that solar or other zero-emissions sources would be less dependable and more expensive than gas, said Catherine Butler, a spokeswoman for the T.V.A.

Although the average cost of generating electricity from wind and solar sources is now lower than from fossil fuels in the U.S., the T.V.A. said that it would be more expensive to tap solar energy for its needs.

“We have an obligation to serve, and ensure the lights come on,” she said. “So, when renewables aren’t available, natural gas will be available to ensure that reliable, resilient service is available to power our communities.”

The T.V.A. plans to add about 5,000 megawatts of new gas capacity — enough to power nearly 3 million homes. It is currently the third largest provider of electricity in the United States.

At one point in the 1960s, the T.V.A. was the biggest consumer of coal in the country, operating 12 coal-fired power plants.

But changes over time have transformed the T.V.A. into the rare utility that now draws almost half its power from zero-emissions sources. Its legacy hydroelectric dams provide 11 percent of the agency’s power while nuclear energy supplies another 39 percent and wind and solar make up 3 percent. It has shuttered coal plants to the point that it now draws 19 percent of its power from coal.

Still, environmental advocates argue that the T.V.A. directors have lagged on energy efficiency and are slow-walking a transition to solar and other renewable power at a time when scientists say countries must sharply and rapidly cut pollution from fossil fuels or face a planet that will dangerously overheat.

“It also sends a terrible message,” said Leah C. Stokes, a political scientist and expert in environmental policy who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The president has very bold goals to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, and here we have a big federal authority really thumbing their nose at that goal.”

President Biden has vowed to help limit total global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with temperatures before the Industrial Revolution. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic impacts increase significantly. To help do that he aims to cut the country’s emissions nearly in half from 2005 levels by 2030; reforming the power sector is key to meeting that target.

“We can’t build any new fossil fuel infrastructure and limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” Ms. Stokes said. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius.

That two independent agencies are seeming to thwart Mr. Biden’s climate agenda underscores the difficulty he faces in trying to curb emissions.

His ambitious climate legislation, which includes billions of dollars in tax incentives to stimulate wind and solar energy, is stalled in Congress. The Supreme Court could further limit Mr. Biden by restricting the government’s ability to regulate emissions in the power sector. At the same time, the administration is facing a legal challenge regarding its calculation of the impact of climate change as it writes federal regulations.

Mr. Biden has nominated four new members to T.V.A.’s nine member board of directors who are awaiting confirmation hearings. If approved by the Senate for five-year terms, the newcomers, several of whom have environmental or labor ties, could shift the direction of the authority.

Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman, said in a statement that he expects Mr. Biden’s appointees to be confirmed this spring, at which point the White House will “look forward to additional opportunities to advance the pace of clean energy investment in the region.”

“Although T.V.A.’s board operates independently from the federal government, we are working hard with all federal and nonfederal electricity providers to deliver clean, affordable and reliable energy to all Americans,” Mr. Patel said.

In the meantime, Representative Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has opened an investigation into T.V.A.’s plans for new gas-powered plants. He and other Democrats said that residents pay too much for Tennessee Valley Authority energy and that the utility is not doing enough to decarbonize.

“Instead of investing in new, less expensive clean technologies, T.V.A. has gutted its energy efficiency program, interfered with the adoption of renewable energy, and is contemplating the construction of additional and costly fossil fuel projects,” Mr. Pallone said in a statement. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said he intends to press nominees on the utility’s gas plans when they come before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on which he sits.

“As the largest federally owned utility, T.V.A. should be leading the way on clean energy,” he said. “It’s going in the wrong direction right now with more gas burning.”

As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the T.V.A. was created in 1933 to harness the floodwaters of the Tennessee River and improve the living standards of farmers. It now supplies electricity to 159 municipalities, power companies and industrial customers across Tennessee as well as portions of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Under current plans, the T.V.A. is aiming to build two gas-fired plants to replace retiring coal plants at Kingston, Tenn., where an infamous coal ash spill occurred 2008, as well as a coal plant in Cumberland, Tenn. It also will replace aging gas-fired “peaker” plants with new combustion turbines in Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.

A document the T.V.A. filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission noted the utility’s board already has approved $3.5 billion for two of the projects.

The T.V.A.’s goal is to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2035, the time by which President Biden wants the entire country’s electricity generation to be free of fossil fuel pollution.

Ms. Butler called the T.V.A.’s less ambitious target a goal “we know is currently feasible today.” She also pushed back on the argument made by environmentalists that the authority should be solely focused on adding more renewable energy, noting the T.V.A. is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions as well as develop small modular nuclear reactors.

The T.V.A. currently generates only 3 percent of its electricity from solar and wind energy, with a goal of building to 10 percent by 2035.

“That’s minuscule,” said Amanda Garcia, the Tennessee director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit organization.

“If the government is supposed to be leading by example and the one federal utility for which the president appoints the board isn’t planning to decarbonize by 2035, what does that mean for all the other utilities that don’t have the mission of the T.V.A. to serve the public interest?” she said.