The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has reignited attention on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest utility, and the Tennessee’s main source of electricity.
The case involved the EPA’s efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act — contested by 15 Republican-led states. The provision, which never came into force, would have forced existing power plants to switch from dirty energy sources – such as coal – to cleaner sources, including solar and wind power, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.
TVA has long relied on coal power. But the federal utility is an exception in the nation’s utility infrastructure, where power companies are generally privately or investor-owned and subject to oversight by shareholders and utility commissions. TVA is self-regulated — has delegated its own powers under the Clean Air Act.
Environmental groups in Tennessee are now considering a different federal tool to limit VAT emissions: a 2021 Biden administration executive order requiring “example” from all federal entities to achieve 100% pollution-free electricity. carbon in federal agencies in 2030.
“The court’s decision places great weight on the Biden administration’s ‘lead by example’ order,” said Amanda Garcia, an environmental lawyer and director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Biden to work with TVA on clean, affordable, renewable energy.”
TVA officials noted last week that they have already made progress on decarbonization efforts, regardless of now-baffled EPA rules. TVA’s targets, set out in a strategic plan last year, are to reduce its 2005 emissions levels by 70% by 2035 – and to net zero by 2050.
“We believe decarbonization is the future,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said. “TVA is leading the effort to move the industry and the nation forward faster and further, together. It will take a lot of work to research, develop and deploy technologies that, frankly, we don’t have today at a competitive price.
Environmentalists say TVA is not on track to meet these reduction targets — which go further than proposed EPA rules struck down by the Supreme Court, but fall short of the aggressive approach needed by any urgency to deal with global warming.
“They’re going to need some kind of incentive,” said Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Some kind of carrot or stick to get them there.”
TVA in 2021 announced its intention to retire its remaining coal-fired power plants, among the oldest operating fossil-fuel power plants in the country. At its peak, TVA operated 12 coal-fired power plants. More than half of them have since retired. The utility is in the process of removing and replacing two others: its coal-fired Cumberland and Kingston plants.
But a looming dispute remains over what will replace those factories. TVA announced plans to replace its Cumberland plant with natural gas, another fossil fuel source instead of solar or wind power.
“They unfortunately doubled down,” Garcia said.
TVA is currently studying future plans for the Kingston fossil plant, where further dangers posed by coal-fired power plants were highlighted in 2008 when millions of cubic meters of ash – the physical by-product of burning coal – spilled over into nearby communities and waterways, destroying homes and hiring sickening laborers to clean it up. Legal challenges brought by these workers and their surviving family members are still ongoing.
As Tennessee environmental groups continue to pressure TVA to turn to cleaner energy, they also warn that the impact of crippling fossil fuel regulations is not limited to state lines. .
#SCOTUS dumped an EPA policy to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants on the same day. Tennessee officials have issued a warning that fish from 43 lakes and streams are “unsafe to eat” due to mercury levels linked to “coal burning”.
A future with clean air and clean water shouldn’t be political. pic.twitter.com/TIAElkOa7s
—Heidi Campbell (@Campbell4TN) June 30, 2022
In June, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency issued an advisory regarding high levels of mercury in fish found in three Tennessee reservoirs: Cheatham County Reservoirs , Center Hill and Dale Hollow. The advisories noted that “atmospheric deposition from global coal burning is the most common reason for high levels of mercury in fish”.
“What happens in the rivers and streams of Tennessee will likely not just come from TVA, but from neighboring states,” Garcia said. “The mercury in our fish probably comes from the coal-fired power plants around us.”