Let’s start by clearing the air. Yes, it is a good thing that, in pretty much every scenario in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s proposed Integrated Resource Plan, clearing the air is in fact what happens by producing more electricity in ways that don’t throw so much carbon into the air. But this does not mean, despite what is splashed across the tva.gov homepage, that the nation’s largest government-owned power producer is significantly increasing its clean-energy capacity. The only way TVA can back this up is by making the Orwellian claim that nuclear energy—which is poised to eclipse coal as TVA’s primary fuel source—is clean energy.
Let’s clear the air: Nuclear energy is not clean energy.
I realize I am about to be nuked by an army of Oak Ridgers for saying this, but there is a reason the X-ray tech steps behind a hefty concrete wall every time she takes that picture of your innards. Of course, whatever radiates from an X-ray session is presumably trivial compared to what emanates from a nuclear plant’s spent fuel rods. From a radiological standpoint there’s nothing clean about that energy. And with spent fuel rods “temporarily” stacking up at some plant sites for more than 50 years, there is still no clean solution for permanently disposing of this waste material that remains highly toxic for thousands of years.
But none of this is to say that nuclear energy doesn’t clear the air.
Indeed, for all of its dirty ground baggage, nuclear energy releases zero carbon into the air when used to produce electricity. In this carbon-laden era, when temperature records seem to get broken every year, all global-warming mitigation options need to be on the IRP table. This is particularly true when considering a 20-year horizon for a major power producer’s mix of fuel sources and other strategies to serve the needs of its customers.
As the most carbon-polluting of all fuel sources, coal is the only one facing an actual decrease in its contribution to TVA’s energy mix. With its use projected to be cut by half, it is clearly a big deal that after half a century as the king of TVA fuels, coal will abdicate the throne and hand the crown over to nuclear.
But coal’s decline in no way means that clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and energy efficiency programs will be major TVA portfolio players, although their use will get historic upward tweaks. Coal will no longer be Number 1, but the Big Three are still nuclear, natural gas (a hard fuel to resist at today’s bargain rates, which in no way reflect the cost of the permanently contaminated aquifers created to extract it through fracking), and coal.
This leaves just about one-fourth of the remaining portfolio to hydro (dams), renewables, and energy efficiency.
The IRP Final Report states that the purpose of the IRP is to “meet future power demand by identifying the need for generating capacity and determining the best mix of resources to meet the need on a least-cost, system-wide basis.” In other words, an IRP makes the business case for how electricity is made and delivered.
And yet, a couple of mandates unique to TVA’s founding mission must be factored into the business case. The IRP must somehow account for environmental stewardship and economic development. But looking at the relatively short shrift the IRP gives to renewables and energy efficiency—even though these true clean-energy sectors supported job growth in Tennessee at twice the state average—it would seem that not all environmental stewardship and economic development is created equal at TVA.
Throughout the report, “least cost” power generation is equated with serving the needs of TVA’s customers. Technically, TVA’s customers are the local power companies in its service region, such as KUB. But, of course, at the end of the power lines, on the other side of the meters, are the real customers.
Let’s be clear that a key need of TVA customers is survival as a species. With electricity generation being the single largest source of carbon emissions into an overheated atmosphere, of mounting radioactive waste with no long-term safe disposal solution, and the burning of natural gas extracted at the cost of permanently contaminated water supplies, it’s clear that TVA has a huge role to play in serving that need.
Let’s also be clear that TVA’s progress on carbon emissions is laudable for the momentum it is creating going forward, at least for putting its dirtiest fuel source on track for deeper cuts. However, until renewables and energy efficiency are at least on track for parity with the Big Three, any IRP at TVA scale is making the business case for species extinction.
Rick Held is the co-founder of the Knoxville Energy Alliance and Partnership for Green Jobs.
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