Utility supports solar farm atop Kentucky coal ash pit

NASHVILLE, TENN. – The nation’s largest utility has proposed building a $216 million solar farm project in Kentucky atop a capped coal ash storage pit at one of its coal-fired power plants.

The Tennessee Valley Federal Authority voted Thursday to advance the initiative at Shawnee Fossil Plant in Paducah. The utility called it a first-of-its-kind pilot project that would convert land used as a waste pile for the byproduct of burning coal for electricity into a solar farm that would help generate 100 megawatts. Officials say the model could eventually be used at other Tennessee Valley Authority closed coal ash sites with a combined capacity of 1,000 megawatts if they pursue this expansion.

The solar initiative is among changes unveiled by the utility in recent years to adjust operations to combat global warming. Environmental advocates, however, continued to note that TVA’s efforts still fall short of President Joe Biden’s administration’s goal of a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035.

“Moving quickly on this solar ceiling installation option at the Shawnee site allows us to go further and faster as we progress towards our renewable energy generation goals while balancing affordability, reliability and the resilience that our customers depend on,” Don Moul, TVA’s chief operating officer, said at a board meeting Thursday in Starkville, Mississippi.

TVA said installing the solar panels at the 300-acre coal ash site, which is being closed, would not compromise the grass used to cover the waste. The project can tap into the transmission infrastructure already in place at the plant, which burns coal to produce around 8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power 540,000 homes. Additionally, TVA officials are investigating whether the new federal inflation reduction law could help the project.

Pending environmental and regulatory reviews, the project could be operational within two years, Moul said.

Amy Kelly, Tennessee representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said the group is “encouraged by TVA’s initiative to place cheaper, reliable, and clean solar power on the cinder basins closing in Shawnee.” . But she also said “it’s also essential that TVA clean up the toxic mess left over from more than six decades of burning coal.” She said TVA should continue its solar development, noting that the utility manages nearly 300,000 acres of land.

Kelly said the coal ash was in unlined pits in Shawnee, contaminating groundwater. TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said when its groundwater monitoring shows “corrective action is needed,” the utility takes actions outlined in the federal coal ash rule and state rules. .

Kelly also said renewables should be considered, instead of natural gas, because they end work at aging coal-fired plants. Switching to natural gas is under consideration for TVA’s coal-fired plants in Cumberland and Kingston, Tennessee, although final decisions have yet to be announced.

TVA already has plans to add 10,000 megawatts of solar power to its system by 2035. It has solicited requests for proposals for up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free power before 2029. TVA has also associated with projects with several leading industrial clients who want their operations linked to renewable energy. In addition, it is developing small-module nuclear reactors and infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

But critics said TVA is still failing to meet its climate change obligation. At a hearing in September, US Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts expressed “frustration with TVA” and said it was “rather disgusting” that TVA was bragging about finding nuclear power plants, but “the energy efficiency, wind or solar, escapes scientists, escapes management.

TVA has set itself the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2035, compared to 2005 levels. TVA CEO Jeff Lyash has stated that TVA will not be able to achieve the 100% reduction target without technological advances in energy storage, carbon capture and small modular nuclear reactors, aiming for 80% instead. The utility has its own ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

There are enough Biden-selected TVA nominees currently awaiting Senate confirmation to constitute a new majority on the board.

TVA power supplies electricity to local power companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.

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