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TVA to Turn Coal Plant Near Clarksville, Tenn., Into Natural Gas Facility

Thu January 12, 2023 - Southeast Edition
Nashville Tennessean & CEG

The two-unit Cumberland Fossil Plant will retire in two stages – with one unit slated to retire by the end of 2026 and the second unit by the end of 2028.  (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority)
The two-unit Cumberland Fossil Plant will retire in two stages – with one unit slated to retire by the end of 2026 and the second unit by the end of 2028. (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority)

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will replace its Cumberland coal plant near Clarksville, Tenn., with a natural gas facility, the federal utility formally announced Jan. 10, despite objections from environmental groups, the Nashville Tennessean reported.

The Cumberland City plant is TVA's largest generator of electricity, powering 1.1 million homes. It consists of two coal-fired units: the first unit will be retired and replaced with a 1,450-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas plant by 2026; the second unit will be retired by 2028, although TVA has not yet decided how it will replace that unit.

To supply the planned facility, a new 32-mi.-long natural gas pipeline will be installed to run through Dickson and Houston counties to reach the Stewart County plant.

TVA said the transition will cut carbon emissions from the facility by up to 60 percent, one step in its aim of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal that will require the closing of its last five coal plants by 2035.

"TVA is aggressively pursuing a sustainable, clean energy future while maintaining our commitment to providing affordable, reliable energy," said Jeff Lyash, president and CEO of the federal utility. "Energy security begins with the diversification of energy sources, and TVA has one of the nation's most diverse, cleanest energy systems, including nuclear, solar, hydro, gas and advanced technologies.

"This decision is based on a thorough environmental and public review process that ensures we meet the growing energy needs of this region."

However, during the nearly two-year review process to transform the Cumberland plant from coal to natural gas, environmental groups, as well as two federal agencies — the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — criticized TVA for not meaningfully exploring other options, such as renewables like solar, to replace the coal plant.

The news also follows a winter storm in which some of TVA's coal and natural gas plants, including Cumberland, succumbed to freezing weather, forcing the utility to implement rolling blackouts for the first time in its almost 90-year history.

Still, Lyash said only natural gas can provide the reliable power needed to replace coal at the site.

"Replacing retired [coal] generation with a natural gas plant is the best overall solution because it's the only mature technology available today that can [supply] firm, ‘dispatchable' power by 2026 when the first Cumberland unit retires," he explained, noting that dispatchable means TVA "can turn it off and on" whenever the system needs more power.

"In addition, natural gas supports continued reduction of carbon emissions by enabling the integration of renewables, such as solar and battery storage, all while maintaining system reliability," Lyall said.

Environmental Concerns Abound

Eco-friendly groups quickly condemned the plan to replace coal with another carbon-emitting fossil fuel.

"Just a few weeks after failing fossil fuel plants caused rolling blackouts across its footprint, the [TVA] is recklessly plowing ahead with plans to spend billions on another gas power plant," said Amanda Garcia, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Tennessee office. "Instead of doubling down on fossil fuels, TVA must invest in clean energy sources that can reliably provide cleaner and cheaper power."

The Nashville news source reported that in response to concerns about the failure of some natural gas plants in December, Lyash said the plant the TVA plans to build at the Cumberland site will be more resilient than the ones that failed during the winter storm. He also pointed out that while some natural gas plants failed, the system also had zero solar energy available during the storm.

TVA also is moving forward with its plan despite the EPA declaring in early January that it had "substantial" concerns about the Cumberland site.

Federal law requires TVA, a federal utility, to evaluate the environmental impact of shutting down a facility like Cumberland and evaluate possible replacements. The EPA found that TVA did not properly evaluate alternatives like solar at the site and failed to account for expected declines in the cost of clean energy and increases in the cost of natural gas, the Tennessean learned.

In an interview with the Nashville newspaper Jan. 10, Lyash said TVA had worked to address the EPA's concerns. He also said the environmental review process was limited to the Cumberland site and did not address changes TVA was making across its system.

"Many people … ignore that over here, we're building thousands of megawatts of solar, and over there we're issuing a 5,000-megawatt clean energy RFP," he noted.

The natural gas plant at the Cumberland site will be able to run on hydrogen fuel, or a mix of hydrogen and natural gas, if that technology becomes practical in the coming years, Lyash added. Likewise, the plant will be built so that carbon capture technology can be integrated into the system when that science matures and becomes cost-effective.

"I'm proud of the Cumberland team," said Travis Patterson, the plant manager at Cumberland. "We've done a tremendous job facing the challenges of increased environmental regulations and the demand for more flexible operation. Cumberland will remain an important part of the fleet until its slated retirement."

From its headquarters in Knoxville, TVA supplies electricity for business customers and local power companies, serving nearly 10 million people in parts of seven southeastern states, including the entirety of Tennessee, large parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, and smaller areas in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

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