Biden’s Hand-picked Regulators Okay Most Anti-Climate Utility Plan in Country

The federally-owned electric utility TVA has taken a key step toward a huge expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure over the next few years.

Maggie Shober | April 17, 2024 | Fossil Gas, Tennessee, Utilities

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Board of Directors has taken a key step toward realizing TVA’s plans for a massive build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure. In an action taken last August, but only made public this month, the board abandoned its oversight responsibility and instead delegated decision making authority to TVA’s CEO for several high stakes power plant and pipeline projects.

TVA is owned by the federal government, yet the only real oversight is through its Board of Directors, who are appointed by the President of the United States. But while the Biden Administration has clear goals to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, TVA is planning a massive expansion of fossil gas. Fossil gas, while once erroneously touted as more climate friendly than coal, is a major carbon dioxide emitter and a significant source of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The decision of the Board – the majority of whom were appointed by President Biden – to hand over decision making authority to the utility’s staff entrenches TVA’s path toward a risky, polluting energy future, and undermines the Biden administration’s own clean energy and climate ambitions.

It is not as if TVA, the federal government’s own electric utility, is in the middle of the pack in proposals that will exacerbate climate change. No, the federal utility is leading the pack toward worsening the climate crisis. TVA has the most planned new fossil fuel power plant capacity by 2030 of any electric utility in the country. TVA’s plans include at least 6,600 megawatts (MW) of new fossil gas power plant capacity and at least 161 miles of new fossil gas pipelines.

Quote from SACE’s Maggie Shober on the TVA Board’s vote on the Kingston, Cheatham County, Allen, and New Caledonia fossil gas plants in an article by WPLN’s Caroline Eggers from April 11, 2024.

These fossil projects come at a financial cost, and that cost will be borne by the residents of the Tennessee Valley for decades to come. TVA has already spent nearly $5 billion on the Cumberland and Kingston gas projects alone: That’s more than $1,600/kW to construct these plants, which is well over the latest average construction costs of $1,176-1,330/kW for similar gas plants used by the EIA in annual analysis, and these TVA projects are nowhere near finished. TVA’s spending on so many fossil fuel projects led to a significant rate increase last year, and is putting the utility at risk of hitting its $30 billion debt limit. Since TVA passes fuel costs directly to customers, and gas prices are volatile, it is also risking customer bills due to future price spikes.

And do we need to continue to remind TVA that it had its first ever instance of rolling blackouts in December of 2022 when fossil fuel infrastructure, both coal and gas, failed? Yet solar helped keep the grid limping along, and wind in the Midwest was available but couldn’t get to the Valley. From a climate, financial, and reliability risk perspective, TVA should not be investing in more fossil gas.

TVA Fossil Fuel Field Day

TVA has announced plans to build 6,600 MW of new fossil gas capacity at eight locations, and has another 2,250 MW of gas at a ninth location currently in its interconnection queue. Several of these plans involve new pipeline infrastructure to bring fossil gas to a location that does not currently have access to it. TVA’s plans are to have all of this capacity online and operating by the end of 2028: less than four years away.

Furthermore, TVA has been proposing and approving each of these fossil gas plants in succession, instead of through a broader Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) process. This fossil bonanza started with TVA’s proposal to replace retiring combustion turbines (CTs) at its Allen and Johnsonville locations with newer and bigger CTs at its Paradise and Colbert locations, and then install additional aero CTs (i.e. jet engines) at its Johnsonville location. Then, the really big proposals started coming: TVA proposed to replace its Cumberland coal plant with 1,450 MW fossil gas combined cycle (CC) and a greenfield gas pipeline, and proposed to replace its Kingston coal plant with 1,500 MW fossil gas CC and CTs and a token amount of solar and storage. In fact, the solar at Kingston is so small relative to the gas, it can only be rightly understood as performative greenwashing.

As these fossil proposals move through TVA’s decision-making process, which is unique in the country because of the relatively few regulatory hoops TVA must jump through to start spending billions of ratepayer dollars, the utility has continued to propose more and more new gas: 900 MW at a greenfield location in Cheatham County; an additional 200 MW at the Allen site in Memphis (a location that is already beleaguered with environmental justice issues); and 500 MW at the New Caledonia location in Mississippi, the only location not in the state of Tennessee.

TVA Board Rubber Stamp

At its August 2023 meeting, the TVA Board of Directors adopted a resolution that passed the buck on the Kingston fossil gas plant and pipeline, as well as the new fossil gas plants at Cheatham County, Allen, and New Caledonia. In a shocking abdication of responsibility, the TVA Board effectively approved four new fossil gas projects and deferred to the CEO the authority to determine that all environmental reviews were completed correctly.

Excerpt of the budget resolution passed by the TVA Board of Directors in August 2023.

Another disturbing part of this process is the secrecy surrounding it all. While it was publicly known that the action taken at that August 2023 board meeting was approving the 2024 annual budget and a rate increase, it was not publicly known that the board resolution would be granting approval to move forward on several high profile gas power projects. Indeed one board member specifically asked CEO Jeff Lyash to confirm that the approval of the budget would not give final approval to any projects, which he did. But when news outlet WPLN submitted in October 2023 a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to TVA to provide a list of projects within the annual budget, TVA withheld the information until March of this year–just a week before TVA announced final approval of the huge Kingston gas project.

TVA Board and President Biden Should Reign In Fossil Fuel Bonanza

The TVA Board, which answers to the Biden Administration, can still reverse course and align the federal utility with President Biden’s clean energy and climate goals, and help ensure that TVA fulfills its requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For Kingston, the TVA Board can vote to require that TVA perform a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to fix the deficiencies in TVA’s Final EIS identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA made it clear that the Kingston EIS does not meet the standards for NEPA, yet TVA’s CEO continues to claim that it does. Therefore, it is up to the Board to step in and ensure TVA follows the law.

In addition, the TVA Board can take back the authority to vote on a final decision on the remaining three gas plants that are still early in the planning process. This is likely easiest done when the Board votes on another budget this August.

Will the TVA Board of Directors, which has a majority of Biden appointees, get the federal utility to reign in this fossil fuel bonanza? Will TVA, the largest public power utility in the country, listen to the customers it serves and stop making decisions that will only make climate change worse?

SACE will keep advocating for TVA to pull back on these fossil fuel plans, and instead work with us on a future plan focused on clean energy generation at scale, expanding electric transmission, building out energy storage, and implementing win-win demand side programs. Stay tuned for more news as it becomes available.

Maggie Shober
Maggie Shober works to speed the clean energy transformation in the Southeast through analysis and advocacy. She has expertise in renewable energy, energy efficiency, coal retirements, energy market modeling, and…
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