Biggest Thing to Happen to TVA Since the Snail Darter

Thursday afternoon, EPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority announced one of the largest pollution reduction consent decrees in US history – resulting in between $3 to $5 billion of investment in air pollution controls, and retirement of almost one-third of TVA’s coal-fired generating units within the next few years.  Over the next decade, it will reduce TVA’s total emissions of nitrogen oxides by 69% and sulfur dioxide by 67%.  Although the agreement provides a timely victory for EPA amid the current backlash against it in Congress, the settlement actually relates to a New Source Review (NSR) suit commenced by EPA during the Clinton Administration in 1999.  The consent decree resolves all alleged past preconstruction violations, as well as alleged violations of the New Source Performance Standards and Title V regulations.

The TVA operates 59 coal-fired boilers at 11 plants in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, and supplies power to around 9 million people in its service area that spans most of the southeastern US. The settlement involves all 11 plants, and includes an obligation to address 92% of TVA’s coal-fired system between 2011 and 2018 by either installing state of the art pollution controls like SCRs and FGD or repowering with renewable biomass. Another 18 coal-fired units, about 16% of TVA’s coal-fired generating system, totaling 2,700 MW of capacity, will be permanently retired – the largest retirement commitment seen under EPA’s Coal-Fired Power Plan initiative, which has settled 22 such NSR cases so far.  However, Greenwire reports that, even before today’s announcement, TVA was already planning to retire about 1,000 MW of coal-fired capacity.

I found the option to repower the units with renewable biomass to be particularly interesting, especially given EPA’s current proposal to continue studying biomass emissions for three years before requiring Clean Air Act permits for greenhouse gas emissions from biomass sources.  In the agreement, “Renewable Biomass” is defined very broadly, with no time-frames or extensive restrictions. Instead, it includes, in part, organic matter that comes from forests or grasslands, as well as residues and byproducts from agriculture, forestry and paper industry. Under the agreement, the repowered units would be deemed “new” emission units, themselves subject to New Source Review and other permitting requirements.

The settlement also includes $10 million in penalties — $8 million paid to EPA, $1 million paid to Tennessee and $500,000 each paid to Alabama and Kentucky — as well as $350 million in environmental mitigation projects, including $240 million to be spent on TVA-run energy efficiency projects and $60 million to be divided among Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee for the states to implement projects of their choosing, so long as they’re within the categories specified in the consent decree.

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