WASHINGTON — The nation’s largest federal utility plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in new gas-fired power plants, despite President Biden’s commitment to quickly move away from fossil fuels and eliminate greenhouse gases from the energy sector in something over a decade.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to nearly 10 million people in the Southeast, is replacing aging power plants that run on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. But critics say replacing coal with gas would block decades of additional carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet and could be avoided by generating more electricity from sun, wind or another renewable source.
It is 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 vehicles that run primarily on gasoline, despite the desire of the White House and leading Democrats to convert the fleet to all-electric vehicles.
It begs the question of whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great 20th-century experiment with electrification can adapt to a 21st-century climate crisis that will require 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 often ridiculed climate science and was an ally to the fossil fuel industry.
In its deliberations on replacing coal-fired generators, the TVA found that solar or other zero-emission sources would be less reliable and more expensive than gas, said Catherine Butler, a TVA spokeswoman.
While the average cost of generating electricity from wind and solar sources is now lower than from fossil fuels in the US, the TVA said it would be more expensive to tap solar for its needs.
“We have a duty to serve and make sure the lights come on,” she said. “So when renewables are not available, natural gas will be available to ensure a reliable, resilient service is available to power our communities.”
The TVA plans to add about 5,000 megawatts of new gas capacity — enough to power nearly 3 million homes. It is currently the third largest supplier of electricity in the United States.
At one point in the 1960s, the TVA was the largest consumer of coal in the country, operating 12 coal-fired power plants.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
President Biden is pushing for tougher regulations but faces a narrow path to achieving his goals in the fight against global warming.
But changes over time have transformed the TVA into the rare utility that now draws nearly half of its power from zero-emission sources. The old hydroelectric dams provide 11 percent of the agency’s energy, while nuclear provides another 39 percent and wind and solar account for 3 percent. It has shut down coal plants to the point that it now gets 19 percent of its power from coal.
Still, environmental advocates argue that TVA directors are lagging behind on energy efficiency and are doing a slow transition to solar and other renewable energies at a time when scientists say countries need to cut back on fossil fuel pollution sharply and quickly. or face a planet that will become dangerous. overheat.
“It also sends a terrible message,” said Leah C. Stokes, a political scientist and environmental policy expert who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The president has very bold goals to decarbonize the energy sector by 2035, and here we have a great federal authority that is really rooting for that goal.”
President Biden has vowed to help limit overall global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures. That’s the threshold above which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic consequences increases significantly. To help with that, he aims to cut the country’s emissions by nearly half by 2030 from 2005 levels; reform of the energy sector is essential to achieve that target.
“We cannot build new fossil fuel infrastructure and limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” Ms Stokes said. The planet has already warmed on average 1.1 degrees Celsius.
That two independent agencies appear to be thwarting Mr Biden’s climate agenda underlines the difficulty he faces in trying to curb emissions.
His ambitious climate legislation, which includes billions of dollars in tax incentives to boost wind and solar energy, has stalled in Congress. The Supreme Court could further restrict Mr Biden by restricting the government’s ability to regulate emissions in the energy sector. At the same time, the administration faces a legal challenge related to calculating the impact of climate change when writing federal regulations.
Mr Biden has nominated four new members to TVA’s nine-member board of directors, pending hearings. If the Senate gives its approval for a five-year term, the new entrants, some of whom have different environmental or labor ties, can change the direction of the authority.
Vedant Patel, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement that he expects Mr. Biden’s nominations to be confirmed this spring, after which the White House “looks at additional opportunities to accelerate the pace of clean energy investment in the region.” increase. †
“While TVA’s board operates independently of the federal government, we are working hard with all federal and non-federal electricity suppliers to provide clean, affordable, and reliable energy to all Americans,” said Mr. patella.
In the meantime, Representative Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has opened an investigation into TVA’s plans for new gas-fired power plants. He and other Democrats said residents are paying too much for Tennessee Valley Authority energy and the utility isn’t doing enough to decarbonise.
“Instead of investing in new, cheaper clean technologies, TVA has halted its energy efficiency program, hindered renewable energy adoption and is considering building additional and expensive fossil fuel projects,” Mr Pallone said in a statement. statement. Rhode Island Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said he plans to showcase the nominees about the utility’s gas plans when they come before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on which he sits.
“As the TVA, the largest federal utility company, should lead the way in clean energy,” he said. “It’s now going in the wrong direction with more gas combustion.”
As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the TVA was created in 1933 to harness the flooding of the Tennessee River and improve the living standards of farmers. It now supplies electricity to 159 municipalities, utility and industrial customers throughout Tennessee, as well as parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Under current plans, the TVA aims to build two gas-fired plants to replace the phasing-out coal plants in Kingston, Tennessee, which suffered a notorious coal ash spill in 2008, as well as a coal-fired power plant in Cumberland, Tennessee. It will also replace the obsolete gas-fired “peaker”. ” plants with new combustion turbines in Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee.
A document the TVA filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission states that the utility’s board has already approved $3.5 billion for two of the projects.
The TVA’s goal is to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2035, the time when President Biden wants the entire country’s electricity generation to be free of fossil fuel pollution.
Ms Butler called the TVA’s less ambitious target “one that we know is currently achievable.” She also pushed back on environmentalists’ argument that the authority should focus solely on adding more renewable energy, noting that the TVA is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions and reduce small-scale emissions. develop modular nuclear reactors.
The TVA currently generates only 3 percent of its electricity from solar and wind energy, with the 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.
“If the government is supposed to lead by example and the one federal utility the president appoints to the board doesn’t plan to decarbonise by 2035, what does that mean for all the other utilities that aren’t in the TVA’s mission to do it? serve the public interest?” she said.