Gas Has Reliability Issues. Why Is the Tennessee Valley Authority Doubling Down on It?

October 12, 2023 | 11:39 am
photo of a gas flare, with orange and red flames emanating from a stack and black smoke filling the blue skyLeonid Ikan/Shutterstock
Brady Watson
Senior Campaign Coordinator

In our series on the increasing unreliability of fossil gas, my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have laid out why growing concerns about grid reliability should not be met simply by increasing the number of gas plants on the grid. In fact, too many gas plants are the problem, not the solution. Furthermore, it’s also clear that with the increase in extreme weather driven by climate change, gas plants are threatened by the very conditions they’ve helped contribute to.

Here where I live in the Tennessee Valley, customers experienced the first rolling blackouts in the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) last year. The TVA is the public power provider to about 10 million people in seven southeastern states. Unfortunately, the very source of the TVA’s grid failure during Winter Storm Elliott in the winter of 2022 is the same source of energy that the TVA is now doubling down on: gas.

(Note: “Natural gas” is an industry misnomer; UCS considers methane, fossil gas, and gas to be much more appropriate terms for this energy source.)

In addition to negative impacts on the energy grid, gas plants have a very real human impact on the folks who call the valley home. I talked to some of them about how the TVA’s gas plants have affected their lives.

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s service territory extends into seven states.

Locals have concerns about the TVA’s expansion plans and lack of transparency

Nancy Muse lives in Florence, Alabama, about 18 miles away from the TVA’s Colbert gas plant, built on the same site as a now-closed TVA coal plant. The plant features eight simple-cycle gas combustion turbines (CTs), and the TVA is planning to build three more on an additional 390 acres. The plans include adding a 20-inch-diameter pipeline next to an existing 10-inch pipeline to supply more gas to the plant.

Muse, concerned about the utility’s plans, reached out to the TVA for more information. “I asked if new gas pipelines would be built from the source to the plant, but my question was not answered and the source of the gas was not revealed,” she told me in an interview recently.

Alabama resident and TVA customer Nancy Muse is concerned about the TVA’s plans to increase its dependence on gas power. (credit: Nancy Muse)

The TVA has a long history of inadequate public engagement on projects and Muse is unaware of any public scoping meetings for this project. “I found this to be unacceptable since more gas would seem to mean more pipelines and more risks to communities, residences, and businesses along the route of these pipelines,” she says.

While she doesn’t live in an area considered to be at high risk from the plant, she does have concerns about the release of methane and other climate-warming gases from the plant and the upstream impacts from the fracking used to procure the gas. Muse believes more transparency is needed.

She says the citizens of the Shoals Area (the name the region is known by) have a right to know the details of any and all pipelines that will bring gas to this plant and where exactly they are located. “Perhaps this information is online, but we should not have to dig to find it and it should have been provided to us in a public meeting,” she says.

The TVA has conducted an environmental assessment (EA) report, but not a more in-depth environmental impact statement, which Muse says is needed to address her concerns.

For its part, the TVA says in the environmental assessment about Colbert and another plant:

“Based on the analyses in the EA, TVA concludes that the implementation of Alternative B (new gas turbines) would not affect prime or unique farmland, land use, geologic resources, cultural resources, solid and hazardous wastes, and public health and safety. Activities associated with construction of the CT plants at Paradise and Colbert and associated offsite TL (transmission lines) and natural gas upgrades have the potential to result in adverse impacts to visual resources, transportation, natural areas, parks and recreation, and noise during construction activities. These impacts would be minor and temporary.”

Translation: the TVA thinks gas plants are a perfectly safe way of generating power with little to no impact on surrounding communities and land.

Muse isn’t buying it. She knows methane emissions have as much as 80 times the heat-trapping effect over a 20-year period as carbon dioxide.

As the costs of gas increase for customers, so do utilities’ profits

While there are plenty of environmental and public health concerns with gas, there are also very real financial ones. The TVA is completely ratepayer-funded, meaning investments in new gas infrastructure are paid for by ratepayers like Muse. With the volatility of the gas market, Muse worries that gas is not a sound financial choice, especially given the area already has high energy burdens. She also has worker health and safety concerns about gas plants and pipelines, especially given the recent death of a TVA employee while venting a gas pipe.

In Muse’s mind, there’s a clear winner in the TVA’s decision to double down on gas. “TVA failed miserably as far as having the ratepayer’s best interest in mind. They continue to cater to the best interests of the fossil fuel industry,” she says.

Paul Klein, another TVA customer, feels similarly. “Even though they are a federally owned entity, they behave as though they are another greedy corporation driven by profit, and not the greater good of the public they are supposed to serve,” he says. The TVA reported $12.5 billion in total operating revenue in fiscal year 2022, the first time ever that its revenue exceeded the $12 billion mark.

Tennessee resident and TVA customer Paul Klein is concerned about the TVA’s motive behind decisions to expand gas pipelines. (credit: Lauren Starnes)

Environmental justice impacts of gas power are numerous

Gas plants pose the greatest health risks to communities closest to the plants. “The air quality surrounding gas plants poses environmental justice issues for those who cannot afford to move away and must continue to endure health issues due to the known carcinogens near gas plants,” Muse says.

Another, perhaps less apparent, impact of gas plants is the impact they can have on water.

Paul Klein lives in Memphis, home to the TVA’s gas-fired Allen Combined Cycle Plant. Memphis gets its drinking water—water that has earned Memphis a reputation for having some of the best-tasting water in the world—from a large underground aquifer. Rather than using treated wastewater to cool the steam the Allen plant uses to make electricity, as other plants have done, the TVA continues to tap into the source of Memphis’s drinking water.

Klein thinks the TVA should be able to pay to treat wastewater. “The TVA, which pays its CEO over $10 million a year, can certainly afford to pay for treating the available wastewater nearby,” he says. Instead, without public input, “[the TVA] drilled five wells down deep into our precious source of drinking water, the Memphis Sands Aquifer.”

Doing so has led to arsenic and other toxic chemicals seeping into the aquifer from piles of toxic coal ash left over after the retirement of the former Allen Steam Plant. Several local environmental groups sued, and now the TVA is contracting with the local power company, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW), to get the water.

In total, US power plants consume more than a trillion gallons of water per year. Even though the Allen Combined Cycle Plant is contributing to potential contamination of the city’s drinking water, the TVA has thus far not offered to help treat the water.

Historically, the TVA has not been a good neighbor. Klein echoes Muse’s sentiments about the utility’s lack of transparency. “Time and again, the TVA leadership has chosen to withhold important information from the public, and refused to be transparent with Memphis residents and even our city and county government officials,” he says.

“Whether it’s the building of the new gas plant and its water needs, the removal of the toxic coal ash from the old plant site and trucking it daily for the next 10 years through residential neighborhood streets, the surprise demolition of the old coal plant’s smokestacks that released toxic dust into our air, or the other options that it possibly considered for alternative energy sources, the TVA is shamefully disrespectful of Memphis residents who make up their largest electrical consumers,” he says. “It’s also worth noting that the neighborhoods that TVA unilaterally chose to truck and dispose of the coal ash in are primarily low-income and Black.”

And of course, Klein and Muse were both affected by the rolling blackouts of Winter Storm Elliott that were partly due to failed gas plants.

Despite gas’s drawbacks, the TVA continues to invest in it

Ironically, in spite of all these negative impacts, the TVA seems dead-set on building more gas plants.

One might think that a federal utility like the TVA, created during the New Deal era, another time of big challenges, would be inclined to lead on climate change and the transition to clean energy, but that’s not the case. TVA CEO Jeff Lyash has often referred to gas as a bridge fuel, needed in the transition to renewable energy. The TVA’s transition to renewables is paltry, however, with a current generation mix of 28% gas and only 3% wind and solar.

Both Klein and Muse, and other customers just like them, want the TVA to invest in renewable energy, which can be used to replace retiring coal plants instead of adding more fossil fuels to the mix. “While of course I am a happy consumer of electricity, I feel that the TVA should be investing in renewable energy,” says Klein.

He’s not wrong to wonder if his utility could be stepping up and doing more. Other utilities are doing it, and the TVA could be a leader given the fact that it is not beholden to shareholders. Like Klein, one also has to wonder: given all the concerns raised by residents, and the clear unreliability of gas, why is the TVA sticking to the fossil-fueled foolery of the past?