One of the nation's largest coal-burning utilities said yesterday it will shutter 18 of its coal-fired boilers and pay billions to rein in pollutants at many of its remaining units, underscoring the evolving energy landscape in the United States.
The move by the Tennessee Valley Authority will result in nearly 1 percent of the nation's coal-fired power capacity going offline by the end of 2018, including 1,000 megawatts of coal-fired power TVA said it planned to retire last year. TVA's landmark deal with a suite of states and environmental groups and U.S. EPA resolves a number of lingering violation complaints EPA brought against the company for allegedly failing to comply with Clean Air Act pollution control requirements at 11 of its plants.
Environmentalists yesterday hailed the agreement as a success for public health that will result in major reductions of greenhouse gases on top of targeted benefits in reductions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
EPA estimated that the agreement will cut TVA's NOx by 69 percent and SO2 by 67 percent, resulting in about $27 billion in annual health care benefits by averting thousands of early deaths, asthma attacks and heart attacks. EPA did not calculate specific greenhouse gas reduction figures.
The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority will be closing 18 units at three of its plants in Tennessee and Alabama as part of the agreement, affecting about 16 percent of its coal-fired electricity generating system. TVA will also need to invest in pollution control retrofits for most of its remaining 41 coal-fired plants, which the company said could cost between $3 billion and $5 billion.
Another provision of the agreement requires TVA to inject $350 million into energy projects to slash pollution and save energy, with $240 million of that pot funding energy efficiency initiatives. A $40 million chunk of TVA's funds will also go toward reducing greenhouse gases and other pollutants through waste heat recovery, hybrid electric charging stations, solar installations and waste treatment methane gas capture projects.
"Today's announcement locks in the retirements ahead, so now we'll see what the next steps are for reductions in greenhouse gases and what will replace the coal-fired power plants," said Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director for the Sierra Club, a group involved in the settlement. "Putting an end to burning millions of tons of coal means huge reductions in greenhouse gases," he said.
15 million tons of CO2 to be eliminated
The 18 units slated for closure emitted about 15 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008, according to TVA.
To replace the electric capacity, TVA will look to "low-emission or zero-emission electricity sources, including renewable energy, natural gas, nuclear power and energy efficiency," the utility said in a statement.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and an unpaid adviser for a group that crafted a long-term strategy for TVA's future resource use, estimates that the closures will shrink TVA's carbon footprint by about 10 percent.
"There are not the workhorse plants. These are older, lower-utilized plants," he said, noting that they would not typically be operating at full capacity.
Still, he called these coal reductions "very important," since TVA is one of the largest coal plant operators in the country and continues to be a major player in the southeastern United States. Other companies will see this choice and follow suit, since it will be expensive to install environmental controls on some of these older, inefficient plants, he said. With this announcement, he said, "you are seeing a major company in the southeastern United States announcing commitments to retire significant amounts of coal."
The central plank of the settlement agreement forged by TVA and EPA requires the retirement of two units at the John Sevier Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee, six units at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northern Alabama, and all 10 of the units at TVA's Johnsonville Plant in central Tennessee. Almost all of those units date back to the 1950s and had no modern pollution controls installed.