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

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.

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I included a link to the blog, which is citing a peer-reviewed journal article published in “Science”.

You’re ignoring that virtually 98% of the land is still useable around a wind farm. That’s how DOE/NREL calculates actual land use, not land spacing.

Comment by Simon Mahan on January 9, 2018 4:29 pm

The oil and gas number you use isn’t specified to electricity generation. It’s every single thing related to anything oil or anything gas. It’s laughable that you think it’s a valid measurement for comparison in the context.

98% of the land around a wind farm is still useable? Do you mean inside the wind farm? Cause it sounds like you’re just the figuring the footprint of the turbine itself. It’s laughable that you think that’s a valid measurement for amount of land a wind farm requires.

But that’s all nonsense, and not the point.

Simon, will you finally admit that Clean Line wouldn’t be delivering 100% wind generated electricity? The point really is moot, since the projects are on life support if not dead, I just want to see if you have enough integrity to set the record straight.

Comment by Matthew on January 9, 2018 5:01 pm

The Science statistic is that 3 million hectares have been potentially permanently lost, since 2000, due to oil/gas well pads, tanks, and associated roads. It specifically excluded all pipelines, all oil/gas power plants, and it didn’t even look at the eastern US, western US, or offshore areas, before the year 2000. Meanwhile, that same amount of land, if used for wind farms, would generate 3x more electricity than generated by all sources. You’re right, that 3 million hectare figure isn’t totally dedicated to the power sector, but I never stated it was. When you compare the 3 million hectares lost for central US oil/gas, against getting 30% renewable energy, you’d need 1/10th the land based on DOE research. So is it likely that 10% of the central US oil/gas wells are used for power plants? Yeah, I think it is.

“…it sounds like you’re just figuring the footprint of the turbine itself” – and the associated roads and grid connection. That’s a direct and fair comparison based on the parameters of the Science journal article. Farmers can still farm their land.

Plains and Eastern could have delivered wind and solar, but wind power is the cheapest option. Under no scenario would fossil fuels or nuclear have been put on the line – those resources are just too expensive. A big utility out west in Colorado had a request for proposals. They got lots of wind/solar/battery storage responses, including some wind+solar+batteries (to essentially be fully base-load/following) – they got 4,000 MW of those proposals and the average price came out to $30 per megawatt hour ($30/MWh, 3 cents per kWh). Wind-alone projects came in at an average of $18/MWh, and solar alone came in at $29.50/MWh.

Comment by Simon Mahan on January 9, 2018 6:55 pm

I find it difficult to fathom the motivations of folks like Matthew. Apparently he thinks that the continued combustion of hydrocarbons is not a problem. Yet he tries to pass himself off as an “expert” naysayer on renewable energy, mostly by misrepresentations. Farmers and ranchers don’t mind leasing their land for these projects, as they are paid well and know that the footprint of these turbines is so small as to be quite inconsequential to their overall farming operations. I have visited a few wind farms up close and in every instance the farmers are able to use the land right up to the base of the turbines.
Who is going to make sure that every one of the (millions) of polluting oil and gas wells is properly sealed when they are finally abandoned? In the meantime Matthew you might try studying climate science.
And I take it that your motivation is financial, why else would anyone prefer polluting hydrocarbons to clean renewables?
Dr. Smith is right TVA should lead, follow or get out of the way. If they would lead they could serve the interests of the people, not the fossil fuel lobby politicians who appointed them.

Comment by tom elliott on January 14, 2018 3:09 pm

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