TVA turns to natural gas, EVs: What it means for Biden

Source: By Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 4, 2021

The nation’s largest public power utility this week kicked off a sweeping electric vehicle charging expansion in Tennessee and announced progress in its goal of slashing carbon emissions 80% by 2040. The Tennessee Valley Authority also took a procedural step forward in an advanced nuclear reactor proposal at a site southwest of Knoxville, Tenn.

But to environmentalists’ chagrin, TVA also announced it would replace shuttered fossil fuel power plants with new natural gas-fired generation in Kentucky and Alabama. And the federal agency has not revealed plans to fully decarbonize its electricity mix by 2035 — potentially putting it on a crash course with a signature Biden administration clean energy goal.

The moves raise questions about how TVA will fit into President Biden’s aggressive plan to combat climate change. At first glance, Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order for agencies to use “all available procurement authorities” to boost clean electricity would appear to be aimed squarely at the federally managed utility giant. But even though TVA is a federal agency, it is an independent one, which could give it some wiggle room when it comes to carrying out Biden’s agenda.

“If the White House wants to get the climate ball rolling, federal agencies need to model the right behavior, and they need to generate successes,” said Jonathan Levenshus, federal campaigns director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

TVA’s announcement this week that it is following through with plans to build 1.5 gigawatts of natural gas-fired units left many environmental advocates shaking their heads. The new gas-fired units will replace two older, inefficient coal-fired units that have been closed.

Levenshus said TVA was starting off with a bad example.

“We have four years of a Democratic administration, and these power decisions are pivotal for what the Biden administration would want to accomplish,” he said.

For its part, TVA has cut CO2 60% from 2005 levels and has set goals to reach 70% by 2030 and 80% by 2040. The utility is following its own long-term energy road map its board approved in 2019. That plan calls for adding as much as 14 GW of solar and 5 GW of storage over the next two decades (Energywire, Aug. 23, 2019).

TVA’s ultimate guidepost is a directive from Congress known as the TVA Act. That requires supplying reliable energy at the lowest feasible cost.

Right now, the utility is still reviewing Biden’s executive orders to figure out what steps to take, spokesman Jim Hopson said.

“We obviously are going to be trying to work through those questions in the coming weeks to determine, like everyone else, that we meet the letter and intent [of the orders],” he said.

This includes what to do with its specialized work vehicles that go to large transmission towers: Part of Biden’s order calls for buying “clean and zero-emission vehicles for Federal, State, local, and Tribal government fleets.” Another question is what to do with TVA’s long-term energy plan, which is set to undergo another review leading up to a formal update in 2022.

Former TVA CEO Bill Johnson also ordered an economic review of the utility’s generation fleet in 2018, citing that falling demand sparked a need to ensure it was running the cleanest, most efficient power plants. That review is ongoing.

“We recognize that when you are talking about decisions of electric power, you are going to have to make some decisions fairly early,” Hopson told E&E News.

TVA has talked with members of Biden’s transition team and the administration, Hopson said.

Questions to the White House about expectations for TVA were not answered in time for publication, and it’s not clear if Biden may have a TVA-specific executive order in the works.

But in 2016, TVA issued a sustainability plan in response to President Obama’s 2015 executive order on planning for federal sustainability in the next decade.

Low-hanging fruit for Biden?

Roughly two-dozen organizations, including unions, clean energy advocates and environmental justice activists see an opportunity for the Biden administration in light of TVA’s role in promoting economic development. The groups penned recommendations last month to the new president on how TVA can advance his climate agenda while aiding the U.S. economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The memo we’ve laid out is, ‘Here’s what TVA can do immediately,'” said Bri Knisley, an outreach coordinator with the grassroots environmental group Appalachian Voices.

One goal is to get the letter in front of the new interagency groups and officials focused on advancing Biden’s climate and clean energy priorities, such as the Office of Domestic Climate Policy (Climatewire, Jan. 21).

“All of the signs are pointing TVA in the direction of how it should be making decisions on how it’s producing power and structuring its rates,” Knisley said.

TVA yesterday announced a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to add 50 additional fast-charging electric vehicle stations along the state’s highways. That’s double the number of existing chargers and would ensure there’s one for roughly every 50 miles.

The goal is to get 200,000 EVs on the road in the state by 2028. There were 11,034 light-duty EVs registered in Tennessee as of the end of last year, according to TVA.

The federal agency also hopes to expand the fast-charging network across its seven-state territory in the Southeast, CEO Jeff Lyash said.

“This promises huge environmental benefits and more good-paying jobs and investment in our region,” Lyash said during a news conference yesterday.

TVA’s move comes as pressure mounts on electricity companies to integrate power-hungry rapid-charging stations into their grids, among other changes needed to accommodate potentially millions of new EVs on U.S. roadways. Utility giant Duke Energy Corp. this week launched a new subsidiary, dubbed eTransEnergy, to run the infrastructure and grid management technology needed for its own EV ambitions.

TVA on Tuesday asked for public input for an advanced nuclear reactor technology park at the Clinch River Nuclear Site. The move marks a formal step in preparing an environmental impact statement for the site, where TVA is considering building a small modular reactor.

TVA has not committed to building SMRs, but the power sector has been clear that nuclear power will be needed to support any decarbonization goals, and Biden embraced what he called the “smaller, safer and more efficient” reactors while on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, TVA’s plans for building three new natural gas combustion turbine units would require upgrades to the existing transmission systems in Kentucky and Alabama.

The utility on Monday asked the public to comment as part of the projects’ environmental assessment phase. When asked how the gas-fired units fit in with TVA’s own carbon-cutting goals as well as those of the Biden administration, spokesman Scott Brooks pointed to the TVA Act.

“We look at our entire mix to ensure we can provide clean, reliable power at the lowest cost feasible,” he said. “We continually monitor and review our generating resources and will continue to do so. We have a clear path forward to achieving a 70% reduction [in carbon] by 2030.”