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TVA Calls For Pivoting To Solar, But Some Environmentalists Say Effort Lacks Urgency

A plant manager at the Cumberland Fossil Plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority's biggest coal-fired plants.
A plant manager at the Cumberland Fossil Plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority's biggest coal-fired plants.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority says in a new review of its facilities that it needs to invest in renewables, including solar energy, to stay competitive. But some environmentalists are questioning the utility's commitment to the idea. 

TVA concludes in the latest draft of its Integrated Resource Plan — released this month, just days after announcing it would shut down two of its coal-fired plants — that it needs to switch up its energy mix to give itself more flexibility. The plan is meant to outline the utility's future plans over the next 20 years.

The over 200-page document explains that since consumers are using less electricity than before and becoming energy efficient, the utility doesn't need to produce as much electricity as it used to. So, its coal-fired and nuclear plants that can't be turned off and run 24/7 are increasingly unnecessary and costly.

Instead, the energy plan calls for relying more on energy sources that are more flexible — like solar, which can be stored or shared, says TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks.

"Solar will play more substantial role probably in the mid-2020s timeframe," said Brooks. "The reality of that would depend on the pricing and potential for battery storage." 

But Brooks admits the plan is just a guide, not a commitment from the TVA board. That’s why Stephen Smith, director of the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says it's a step back from TVA's previous energy plan, which included more specific goals about the need for more energy efficient options, like solar.  

"In their last IRP they did four years ago, they were going to make big commitments to energy efficiency," Smith says. "None of that is visible anymore in this IRP, and they’ve pulled way way back."

Smith believes TVA will likely stay reliant on its natural gas and nuclear plants which make up over half of its existing energy mix.

The utility is going through a public comment period on the plan before it releases a final version.

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