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The TVA is reducing carbon pollution in coal country

TVA is cutting carbon pollution by closing coal-fired power plants in coal country.
TVA is cutting carbon pollution by closing coal-fired power plants in coal country.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Perhaps the heart of coal country is the last place one would expect a utility to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. However, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is ahead of schedule on its target to reduce greenhouse gasses. The utility announced it has reduced carbon pollution to 23% below 2005 levels. Moreover, TVA appears on target to achieve reductions of 40% below 2005 levels by 2020.

The TVA was established under FDR’s administration to build flood control dams in a multi-state region in the south and use those dams to generate inexpensive hydro-electric power to a poverty stricken region where millions did not have electricity. Since that time the TVA has expanded its electrical generation into coal-fired and gas fired plants. In recent years, in part because of incentives provided under the Obama administration, the TVA has been developing renewable energy sources.

TVA’s reductions surpass both the Energy Information Association’s (EIA) projections that the utility sector as a whole will reduce GHG emissions by 11 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and the White House Climate Action Plan target of 17 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2020.

The reduction in TVA’s greenhouse gases can largely be attributed to the utility’s planned retirement of 5,580 MW of coal-fired power plants, with more retirements likely to come. The projected drop in future carbon dioxide (CO2) rates will put TVA in line with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) New Source Performance Standards for new gas turbines, as well as the new EPA carbon rules expected this summer.

TVA has reduced carbon pollution 28% since its peak year in 1995. In addition, TVA has reduced SO2 emissions 97% since the peak year in 1977, and reduced NOX by 90% from the peak in 1995. They have done this in large part by reducing coal consumption from 5.5 million tons a year in 2008 to less than 5 million tons in 2013. TVA projects that it will reduce coal consumption to less than 2.5 million tons by 2017—cutting it in half.

If a utility in the heart of coal country can do this, why can’t utilities located far from coal country do the same?

Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), commented:

“These are impressive numbers, which represent a critical step toward mitigating climate change impacts while proving that cleaner energy will protect air and water in the Tennessee Valley. The utility’s steady decline in past emissions, coupled with a lower projected future rate of emissions, demonstrate that TVA’s system-wide numbers appear to be well positioned ahead of new emission limits for existing sources of pollution from EPA this summer.”

There is another benefit for the region by retirement of these coal-fired plants and that is air quality. Pollution largely attributed to burning coal has shrouded scenic areas like the Smokey Mountains in a deep haze. They were named Smoky Mountains because of the natural ozone, but the additional haze from pollution has made it hard to see the beautiful mountains.

The Grand Canyon and other National Parks in the west suffer with the same haze largely from burning coal to make electricity. Maybe those utilities can follow TVA’s lead.

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