The Tennessee Valley Authority has planned the largest fossil fuel buildout of any utility in the nation this decade — and it just proposed another project.
The federal utility intends to build new methane gas facilities in South Memphis, an area long subject to environmental racism that houses existing TVA gas facilities, arsenic pollution from coal ash, Tennessee’s sole oil refinery and a disproportionate share of the state’s active Superfund sites — along with high cancer risks.
“When is enough going to be enough? When are we going to put people over profits?” said Yolonda Spinks, spokesperson for Memphis Community Against Pollution.
Methane gas is the largest source of U.S. electricity, accounting for 40% of generation in 2022. To use gas for electricity, companies drill deep underground via fracking and push it through interstate pipelines, and utilities burn it in turbines. Methane leaks throughout the extraction and transportation process, and the greenhouse gas is burned into carbon dioxide emissions at the end phase.
TVA says the project to build six new turbines will impact air quality, climate change, environmental justice and transportation. TVA suggests issues like socioeconomics and surface water quality “will be addressed.”
“The purpose of the proposed action is to increase the flexibility and reliability of TVA power system (sic) by improving TVA’s transmission system stability in western Tennessee,” TVA wrote in its official notice for the 200-megawatt project, which TVA says is enough to power more than 100,000 homes.
Who benefits, who loses?
Gas projects benefit pipeline companies, which make billions of dollars each year transporting fracked gas, and may even benefit utility executives, which TVA has previously denied as motivation. (TVA CEO Jeff Lyash made about $9.8 million in fiscal year 2022.)
The use of fossil fuels endangers life on the planet and harms frontline communities. Officials have also warned that TVA’s proposed gas projects will likely be more expensive than renewable options for residents in the Valley.
Plus, there is no evidence that new fossil fuel capacity is needed on the grid. The National Renewable Energy Lab, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, says the nation could have 80% wind and solar in the next dozen years. TVA used about 5% wind and solar last year.
So, to justify new fossil fuel infrastructure, utilities like TVA have been saying that gas is “reliable.”
This idea has been scrutinized this past year due to recent cold weather events. In December, TVA issued rolling blackouts during Winter Storm Elliott largely because of gas failures. Gas drilling sites, compressor stations and pipelines can freeze and turbines can malfunction in extreme cold.
Two of the nation’s primary energy regulators, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, issued a report last month detailing the gas failures during Elliott and the need to examine the risks associated with relying on gas during cold weather.
Blackouts can be dangerous and deadly, as people lose heat, air conditioning or electric medical supplies. In 2021, as many as 700 people died during Winter Storm Uri, partially due to blackouts — some people died of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning related to using portable generators.
In Memphis, TVA has the Allen Combined Cycle Plant, a methane gas plant that became operational in 2018 to replace coal at the now-retired Allen Fossil Plant, and the Allen Combustion Turbine facility. The latter has 20 turbine units that burn diesel and methane.
During Elliott last year, 16 of the 20 units at the Allen Combustion Turbine facility failed and cut TVA’s power by 240 megawatts, according to TVA, which has now stopped using those units. TVA plans to keep two of the units at that facility in operation.
TVA is spending big on gas
TVA got nearly 50% of its generation from fossil fuels in 2022, and TVA has now pushed for four new gas projects in the past year. TVA has been trying to replace fossil fuels with more fossil fuels in its Cumberland and Kingston projects, giving solar as the only other option — despite wind and energy efficiency being other options that would diversify TVA’s power system. Or, in the case of this new proposal or the Cheatham County project, TVA proposed fossil fuels with no alternatives.
TVA is building some new solar capacity and recently announced plans for more energy efficiency to offset some of the load growth from increased manufacturing in the state.
In the past year, TVA has formally proposed about 6.1 gigawatts of new gas generation, roughly 15% of its latest self-reported capacity, and announced a “goal” to hit 10 gigawatts of new solar by 2035. In 2024, TVA plans to spend 11 times more on gas than solar, according to a budget TVA submitted to Congress earlier this year.
TVA plans to spend a total of $15 billion in the next three years on new generation and transmission. The TVA board recently approved a budget and rate increase without knowing any financial details for two of the three years.
‘There are other options’
Spinks, the activist, says she grew up down the street from the Valero oil refinery in Memphis. She successfully helped fight off threats to her community from a proposed oil pipeline and an evergreen contract between the local power company, Memphis, Light, Gas and Water, and TVA.
But the threats keep coming. TVA started trucking coal ash through the South Memphis neighborhood from the Allen site last year. And, just two months after a medical sterilization company emitting toxic, odorless gas announced its relocation, TVA announced the gas project.
Spinks says it is unacceptable, especially given the viability of clean resources like renewables, storage and energy efficiency.
“There are other options,” Spinks said. “Stop polluting the communities of Black folks, Indigenous folks and poor folks.”