TVA’s Carbon Trajectory

  • Monday, January 23, 2017

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, economic growth and carbon emissions have gone hand-in-hand. Manufacturing has relied on power production, which has mostly relied on coal. 

That is until the year 2000, when 35 nations undertook the difficult work of carbon decoupling, which is to say breaking the link between growth in their gross domestic product and carbon emissions. 

The U.S. has been a player in this process, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, and 33 states have decoupled GDP from carbon, including six of the Valley states: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky. 

“Our carbon numbers are down 30 percent and we’re on a path to have them down 60 percent by the end of the decade,” says Brenda Brickhouse, vice president of Environment and Energy Policy at TVA. 

How is such a change possible? “We’ve changed our fleet substantially to move toward a more balanced portfolio,” she says, “all based on least-cost planning.” 

These days, overreliance on coal just doesn’t make sense, she explains: “It costs a lot of money to keep some old coal plants running; it costs a lot of money to keep them up to date. So we’re investing in low-cost, cleaner gas. We just invested in Watts Bar 2, which generates enough emissions-free electricity to power 650,000 homes. We’re also committed to hydro, to renewables and to energy efficiency.” 

All of those changes are outlined in TVA’s Integrated Resource Plan, its planning roadmap to the year 2020. “Structurally, with our now more-balanced fleet, we’re not looking at significant change beyond this year,” Ms. Brickhouse says. “We have a couple of coal plants that need to be retired, we have a couple of gas plants that need to be finished. We’ll continue to look at resource planning, but if we follow the course laid out in the IRP, we’re not looking at any big changes in the near term. 

Questions about environmental regulation abound right now. One is: How will power companies react if strict carbon reduction restrictions are lifted? 

From Ms. Brickhouse’s point of view, TVA will simply stay the course. “Because of the changes we have made, we are well on our way to meeting the Clean Power Plan,” she says. “And because that was a least-cost plan, and lower carbon emissions happened to be baked right into it, we will continue to be aligned with its goals even if it gets repealed.” 

“We make decisions with low-cost, reliability and clean energy in mind,” Ms. Brickhouse explains. “It’s a three legged stool, and we consider all three when making decisions—not just the environment.” 

That being said, she does note that TVA’s industrial and business partners expect a cleaner and cleaner portfolio. “Companies from across the spectrum—not just the big ones—have environmental benchmarks now,” she explains. “To a certain extent, we must shape our product to meet the needs of what the customer wants it to be.” 

For all of these reasons, she says, “We will stay the course, not driven by regulation, but by what works for us and for our customers.”

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