Clean Line: A TVA Failure of Clean Energy and Environmental Leadership

Stephen Smith | January 8, 2018 | Energy Policy, Utilities, Wind
It has become increasingly clear that the Tennessee Valley Authority is taking a hostile position towards renewable energy. TVA’s recent decision to ignore, or flat out reject, renewable energy from the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project is the latest in a string of anti-renewable energy positions taken by the nation’s largest public utility. TVA is woefully behind peer utilities in procuring significant solar energy resources (Duke Energy North Carolina, Georgia Power, FPL in Florida to name just a few). Newly proposed 2018 solar rate structures would undermine distributed energy resources by taking the buy back rate below retail for TVA’s customer owned solar systems, effectively making TVA an “anti net-metering utility.” In 2016, TVA quietly let a 300 megawatt wind farm power purchase agreement lapse – a nearly 20% drop in renewable energy purchases. These are all examples of TVA’s movement away from clean, renewable energy.

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line project was the largest renewable energy project proposed for the Southeast. The project would have delivered 3,500 megawatts of exceptionally low-cost, high capacity factor wind energy from the Oklahoma panhandle to a converter station in TVA territory.

Naysayers will claim the Plains and Eastern Clean Line just wasn’t cheap enough. TVA could have netted carbon-free energy for about two cents per kilowatt hour ($0.02/kWh) –  a locked-in price, lower than the fuel prices of natural gas.

If TVA had participated, the project could have sent low cost wind power to other utilities in the region, including the Carolinas, Georgia and even Florida. The Plains and Eastern Clean Line would have been the crown jewel for renewable energy projects in the Southeast, this can not be overstated. It would have also been a major United States infrastructure project using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines to move wind from the Plains to Eastern load centers, demonstrating the value of HVDC technology and diversifying the Southeast’s grid (both resources and connectivity) with systems further to the West.

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line project went through a multi-year, rigorous, environmental impact statement process with flying colors. However, large utility power purchase agreements were necessary to financially anchor such a project. After nearly eight years of development, with all federal permits secured, Clean Line still needed TVA to sign up and agree to buy a portion – 500-1,000 MWs of wind power. TVA’s President Bill Johnson strung the Clean Line partners along for several years, never really negotiating in good faith. Johnson claims to be “agnostic” on energy sources, but his track record at Progress Energy and now at TVA is one of building large natural gas projects and supporting troubled nuclear projects; he does not understand renewable technologies, thinks they are a threat to the traditional utility business model, and brings this narrow thinking to his leadership position at TVA.

Corporations and electric companies are clamoring for low-cost wind power. In 2016, major corporations, including Kellogg’s, General Motors, Facebook, Honda, Westlake Chemical, IKEA, Unilever and others, wrote to the TVA encouraging wind power purchases. Businesses like these and members of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry are eager for power price stability, and because wind power has zero fuel cost, there is zero price volatility. TVA has flat out ignored those companies, at the risk of halting economic development in the region.

TVA’s hostility towards renewable energy puts its ratepayers, and the region, at risk of higher costs for dirty energy and keeps TVA dependent on fossil fuels like gas and coal. The failure to execute on such a important project shows that current TVA leadership under Bill Johnson is more interested in top down, antiquated, monopolistic thinking instead of TVA being an innovative leader bringing new technologies like HVDC, high-capacity wind and clean solar on to the power grid and into our region. Crowing about bringing a forty year old nuclear plant online that was built with 1970s technology, and overbuilding natural gas units that replace aged coal plants while failing to address the serious coal ash issues in the TVA region is not environmentally responsible leadership. Johnson’s lack of respect and concern for the region’s natural resources will be a black mark on his leadership record.

SACE will be drawing attention to this new renewable energy hostility of TVA current leadership.  When it comes to clean energy and environmental protection, TVA should lead or get out of the way.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience effecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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