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The Future

Feb 15, 2023

Feb. 2023

My article last August discussed the need for a definitive plan if there is any hope of reducing carbon emissions from electric power plants.  A forced, unplanned, uncoordinated movement to meet net-zero carbon emissions by any date will certainly result in unreliable electric service and higher costs for electric consumers.

Unfortunately, rolling blackouts in Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s service area over Christmas break, and the resulting discussions and accusations, moved us closer to a chaotic, uncoordinated transition of the electric grid.

Like most electric utilities, TVA has maintained 99.999% power reliability for many years. However, the arctic blast that hit the southern U.S. resulted in very high electric usage and demand for TVA on Dec. 23-24. TVA had its third-highest all-time peak demand on Dec. 23 at 33,425 megawatts (MW)s.

As TVA’s demand grew, some of its coal-fired and natural gas generation units failed due to extreme weather-related conditions. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicates TVA had more than 3,000 MWs unavailable because of outages and was as much as 7,000 MWs short of meeting its peak. Because of its inability to meet demand, TVA directed its local power distributors’ customers across its seven-state service area to cut 5% of their firm electric load for two hours on Dec. 23and 10% for periods on Christmas Eve.

TVA announced an investigation of the problems that caused the capacity shortfalls. Preliminary indications are that cold temperatures and high winds damaged several of TVA’s protective structures at the Cumberland coal plant and several gas-fired combustion turbines used for peak periods. A directive to cut firm load is standard operating procedure for electric utilities facing a capacity deficiency.

Most of the TVA distributors have never experienced rolling blackouts, and the pushback TVA is receiving has been harsh on many fronts. As expected, the problem of failing coal and natural gas generators provided an opportunity for environmental groups to demand TVA move more quickly toward renewable energy.

Southern Environmental Law Center Tennessee Office Director, Amanda Garcia stated: “(TVA)’s coal and gas plants failed us over the holiday weekend. People across the Tennessee Valley were forced to deal with rolling blackouts, even as temperatures plunged into the single digits. Despite this obvious failure, the federal utility is still planning to spend billions on building new gas plants and pipelines.”

In another widely-quoted release, Amy Kelly, the Tennessee representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign stated: “Fossil fuels are not the answer.” Kelly urged TVA not to proceed with an environmental assessment to replace the Cumberland Fossil Plant with natural gas-fired combined cycle plants until the six new directors for the TVA board have had a chance to study the issue. She also stated: “TVA needs to step up its energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy offerings so it isn’t a tagalong, but a leader in the 21st Century.” 

Ms. Garcia’s and Ms. Kelly’s statements and recommendations are the normal rhetoric indicative of their organizations, though they gained traction because of TVA’s December difficulties. But, they are just wrong.

Some years ago, the majority of TVA’s generation fleet was coal-fired. It is now just 19% coal and 26% natural gas. Retired coal generation was replaced by natural gas and renewables – primarily solar. While a portion of TVA’s fossil generation failed in December, its renewables – aside from hydro – were non-existent. TVA’s generation problem is not that it hasn’t replaced enough fossil-fired generation with renewables, but too much. And now, the Sierra Club and the SELC, through Ms. Garcia and Ms. Kelly, want less fossil-fired generation and more renewables.

Amanda Garcia is a SELC environmental lawyer, whose career has been centered on litigating environmental matters. Amy Kelly is a community developer and organizer with the Sierra Club, whose primary career has focused on environmental activism. They have no utility experience. Their recommendations are pure nonsense to people who operate electric utility systems. We know how silly it is to shut down generation that can be dispatched when needed (despite the inevitable operating difficulties of all machines) and replace it with intermittent renewables. To think that TVA could have covered its December demand with more renewables is beyond absurd.     

The world will never be completely powered by renewable energy. It is too intermittent, and solar and batteries do not support the rotating mass of the electric grid. A serious plan that protects electric reliability and affordability, not biased, uninformed rhetoric from environmental activists, needs to be the focus of a seamless transition to a more carbon-constrained electric generation fleet.

This environmentalist position reminds me of the lyrics to a Ryan Bingham song, The Poet.

And as I keep walkin’

People keep a-talkin’

About things they’ve never seen or done

Without a serious plan free of uninformed rhetoric, the Christmas Eve rolling blackouts are our future.

I hope you have a good month.

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