The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has approved retirement of the Cumberland coal-fired power plant, with officials on Jan. 10 saying the utility will replace one of the plant’s two units with a 1,450-MW natural gas-fired combined cycle facility at the site.
The TVA has held public meetings over the past few years amid much discussion of the fate of the 2,470-MW Cumberland coal plant, which has operated since 1968. TVA has been looking at options for Cumberland since 2019, as the facility has required more capital investments to continue operating, and in order to meet stricter air quality regulations.
TVA officials have considered several options for replacing the coal plant, including solar and wind power, battery energy storage, and natural gas. The utility in December said it likely would choose natural gas to replace Cumberland’s generation, with CEO Jeff Lyash confirming that decision on Tuesday.
“TVA is building the energy system of the future to ensure low rates, high reliability, and increasingly cleaner generation,” said Lyash. “The decision to retire Cumberland with plans to retire the entire coal fleet by the mid-2030s is aligned with TVA’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions.”
Environmentalists have said TVA needs to accelerate its retirements of its fossil fuel assets, while the utility has said maintaining a reliable supply of electricity is paramount in its decisions. The utility called on customers to reduce their use of electricity during a bitter cold snap just before Christmas that stretched power resources and brought rolling blackouts in its territory on Christmas Eve.
Both Cumberland and Bull Run, another TVA coal-fired plant, went offline during the cold snap. The utility said there also were issues at some of its natural gas-fired facilities. The utility said it reached an all-time high for December power demand on Dec. 23, and for the first time told power companies across its seven-state region to reduce their electric load to relieve stress on the grid.
Cumberland’s coal units will be retired in two stages. One unit will be shuttered by year-end 2026, with the other taken out of service by the end of 2028. TVA officials said the new gas-fired plant will be in operation prior to the first of those retirements. Additional generation to replace the second retiring unit is still being considered, with several options under consideration according to TVA.
The gas-fired plant is expected to be fed by a 32-mile natural gas pipeline that has been proposed by Kinder Morgan. Regulators with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission still need to approve the pipeline, which has been opposed by environmental groups who have cited concerns about methane leaks.
‘Best Overall Solution’
“Replacing retired generation with a natural gas plant is the best overall solution because it’s the only mature technology available today that can be in operation by 2026 when the first Cumberland unit retires,” Lyash said. “In addition, natural gas produces less than half the carbon emissions as the retiring coal unit and enables the integration of renewables, such as solar and battery storage, all while maintaining system reliability.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a letter last month to TVA told the utility that it “did not accept many of EPA’s recommendations related to climate change,” and said the federal utility should have done “a more robust evaluation of renewable power sources” as it considered replacing the coal-fired generation. TVA, for its part, said the maintaining gas-fired generation in the utility’s portfolio “protects the ability to provide the high reliability we offer the 10 million customers in the Tennessee Valley. Gas generation can be quickly brought online to meet peak demands in the winter and summer, and when it’s not needed, it can remain offline, further reducing carbon emissions.”
The utility in a news release said that at the present time, a “solar and battery storage option was not selected for replacement generation for the first unit because, among other things, it’s too expensive [$1.8 billion more expensive] and will take too long [more than a decade].”
The EPA in a Jan. 6 response to TVA’s analysis of replacement generation for Cumberland said the utility relied on “inaccurate underlying economic information” and “may continue to underestimate the potential costs of the combined cycle gas plant and overstate the cost of solar and storage.” EPA added that TVA also failed to account for the opportunities presented by recent federal legislation providing $375 billion over 10 years for clean energy projects.
But Lyash said with growing power demand and an aging fleet of coal plants, TVA needs to move ahead with plans for the future. Lyash on Tuesday said TVA plans to bring 10 GW of solar power generation online by 2035.
Said Lyash: “We must balance affordability, reliability, resiliency, and sustainability in every decision we make and actions we take now to keep energy costs stable and low and the lights on as we make this generational transition.” Lysah said the utility also has requested proposals from other power generators for an additional 5 GW of purchased renewable energy and nuclear power.
Major Coal Plant
The Cumberland Fossil Plant is the largest generating asset in TVA’s coal-powered fleet. The plant is located in Cumberland City, Tennessee.
“Cumberland has and continues to play a key role in our mission of service,” said Kris Edmondson, TVA vice president of Coal Operations. “Both Cumberland units are equipped with technology to remove more than 95% of plant emissions. As environmental requirements are becoming more stringent and with load and profiles fluctuating, operating Cumberland is more and more challenging. The employees at Cumberland continue to do an excellent job meeting those challenges.”
Travis Patterson, manager of the Cumberland plant, said, “I’m proud of the Cumberland team. We’ve done a tremendous job facing the challenges of increased environmental regulations and the demand for more flexible operation. We’ll continue to do great work, and Cumberland will remain an important part of the fleet until its slated retirement.”
Jacinda Woodward, senior vice president for Power Operations, said the company has a plan for workers who would be displaced by the closure of the coal units. “We have a detailed workforce plan in place to maintain coal plant expertise and provide opportunities for employees to evaluate options and prepare for next career steps,” said Woodward. “The plan includes opportunities to transfer to other TVA locations where employee skillsets are needed, to gain skillsets for transitioning to a new job in TVA, or to identify external opportunities if that best meets employee needs.”
Utility officials also said they are working with the local community to reduce the impact of the coal plant’s closure. That includes evaluating opportunities for economic development or redevelopment of the future retired site.
“My team and I will continue to work with impacted stakeholders and communities as this transition occurs,” said Justin Maierhofer, TVA’s North Region vice president. “The benefit of our regional model is we live in these communities and can hear firsthand the challenges and work together to propose solutions that make life better for everyone.”
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).