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Good news from the TVA

To the surprise of many, in mid-November the Tennessee Valley Authority announced the closure of three of its 11 coal-burning power plants.
At the Widows Creek and Colbert plants in northern Alabama, though idling some of the generation units was part of an earlier Consent Decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, an additional unit will be closed and closure of the others sped up. At the Paradise plant in Kentucky, coal generation is to be replaced with cleaner burning, cheaper natural gas.
This development “signals big steps forward for clean energy in the Tennessee Valley,” Dr. Stephen Smith said of the announcement. For many years, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which he heads, has prodded TVA to reduce coal generation in favor of clean, renewable sources. Smith serves on the Regional Energy Resource Council, an official advisory body to the TVA’s directors.
Since its coal-fired plants are quite old, most dating from the post-war industrial growth era of the 1950s, the utility’s air-pollution impacts have been high. Ozone-forming nitrogen-oxide pollution from the Paradise plant, for example, equaled that of all 5 million cars on the road in Tennessee at the turn of the century, and its sulfur dioxide emissions responsible for lung damage and acid rain, exceeded those of all coal-fired power plants in the State of New York.
As a SACE report documented, its coal plants made TVA the second and third ranking emitter of these pollutants nationally. It ranked number three in annual utility emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal contributor to global warming.
When completed, the announced plant closings will lower TVA’s global-warming emissions by more than 15.6 million tons per year.
Last November, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report on the costliest U.S. coal plants deemed “Ripe for Retirement.” Its analysis of economic factors, primarily, found up to 350 old coal-generation units to be uncompetitive compared with cleaner energy sources, even when the cost of needed pollution-abatement upgrades is taken into account.
The authors enumerated some of the many known drawbacks to the nation’s high dependence on coal-generated electricity. It damages public health. The soot it emits causes disease, premature death and triggers asthma attacks. The mercury it sets free poisons waterways and fish and causes neurological damage in children. It demands billions of gallons of cooling water from vulnerable rivers and lakes, leaves behind vast quantities of toxic coal-ash residuals, and its mining causes extensive and lasting damage to the natural environment.
Two of the plants now being retired, like the Kingston plant five years ago, have had significant coal-ash waste problems, including major surface releases into Tennessee river tributaries and seepage from the unlined ponds polluting the groundwater near the plants.
From a high of more than 60 percent reliance on coal not long ago, new leadership is said to be “heading TVA toward a future where its coal capacity is reduced to only 20 percent.” For people’s health, the natural environment and for helping stabilize the climate, this is good news indeed.