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'Misleading': EPA lambasts TVA analysis for Kingston methane pipeline project in Tennessee

TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant is seen in the early morning along the Clinch River Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 in Kingston, Tenn.
AP Photo
Wade Payne
TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant is seen in the early morning along the Clinch River Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 in Kingston, Tenn.

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced last Tuesday that it intends to build a methane gas plant in Kingston, requiring a 122-mile pipeline in six counties between Nashville and Knoxville.

The decision comes just a week after the Environmental Protection Agency warned TVA that the environmental review for the project was inadequate — and that their concerns about costs and climate are “substantial.”

“TVA is considering those Environmental Protection Agency comments and will address them as appropriate as TVA continues its decision-making process,” TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks said in an emailed statement on April 1, the day before TVA issued the decision.

The decision was made by CEO Jeff Lyash, after the TVA Board gave up their decision-making authority without public notice.

EPA finds ‘lack of transparency’ in environmental review

Over the past year, TVA was supposed to consider various ways to replace its old coal plant in Kingston, the site of the infamous 2008 coal ash spill.

TVA published a final environmental review in February, stating its preference for a 1.5-gigawatt methane gas plant, which is the equivalent of about 5% of TVA’s total generating capacity mix of 32 gigawatts.

Last week, EPA suggested in a letter that the environmental review was not complete. The agency requested that TVA prepare an additional environmental review to address “the lack of transparency.”

“Their decision is therefore going to be legally vulnerable,” said Amanda Garcia, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I have never seen an EPA letter so strongly criticizing one of TVA’s projects.”

The federal agency suggested that TVA provided figures and deadlines that ensured the gas option, without providing proof for some of their claims. EPA ordered the utility to “avoid defining the purpose and need of the project too narrowly, such that it is only fully met by the preferred alternative.”

EPA says solar would be ‘lower cost’, safer

TVA says that building a gas plant would be cheaper. EPA rejects this claim, which TVA made without disclosing its math, reminding the federal utility of its legal requirement to use “least-cost planning.”

“To meet TVA’s identified mandate, TVA should consider lower cost, lower risk, and more responsible alternatives that are viable,” EPA wrote, such as using a solar and storage system or a blend of renewables with a smaller amount of gas.

An independent study by the Applied Economics Clinic showed that the solar option proposed by TVA could save customers $1.3 billion over 20 years compared to the gas plant. The study says that the gas plant would cost $4.8 billion, or $5.1 billion if TVA installed a “carbon capture and storage” system, and the solar alternative would cost $3.7 billion or $4.2 billion, depending on whether TVA built the solar farms or used power purchase agreements.

EPA highlighted this study, which does disclose its math, and said TVA did not consider Inflation Reduction Act incentives or how the U.S. investment in liquified gas export could increase domestic gas prices.

‘TVA could have and should have been acting on these issues’

TVA can replace its coal generation at Kingston with solar farms and batteries. But the utility claimed that it cannot build enough solar projects in East Tennessee by its self-determined deadline of 2027. TVA did not justify this timeframe in its environmental review, which automatically made the solar option “technically infeasible and therefore not a viable alternative,” EPA wrote.

TVA’s own records show that it could add 1.5 gigawatts of solar by that time. In the written decision on Kingston, TVA said it has 15 gigawatts of solar or solar-plus-storage projects in its queue — the waiting line to get connected to the grid — but not enough projects are in East Tennessee. TVA said it takes an average of “5.4 years” for a project to come online, but TVA could speed up that timeline, according to Daniel Tait, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute.

“TVA could have and should have been acting on these issues years ago but it didn’t. Now, it claims it is out of time and the only solution is gas,” Tait said. “TVA cannot complain about how long it takes to interconnect renewable energy when it is solely responsible for setting the interconnection rules. Rather than complain about a problem it created, TVA should fix the problem.”

The Kingston gas project that TVA approved includes a tiny solar facility, up to .004 gigawatts — the equivalent of less than .3% of the gas plant — and a .1-GW storage facility.

‘The best available science’ 

According to EPA, TVA underestimated conventional air pollution and how that would disproportionately impact vulnerable communities — in this case, communities that have long been exposed to the byproducts of burning coal at the Kingston Fossil Plant and the 2008 coal ash spill. Gas plants threaten communities with emissions of formaldehyde and nitrous oxides that can cause premature death.

TVA also underestimated the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, or the gases that heat the planet, according to EPA. TVA should only use estimates “that represent the best available science,” EPA wrote.

Gas plants contribute to climate change because methane is burned into carbon dioxide emissions. And, to burn methane for electricity, the gas has to be extracted from as far as a mile or more down into Earth’s crust and then transported across pipelines.

Methane leaks from pipelines and drilling fields. A study published by RMI last year found that leaks can make gas as bad as coal for the climate in the short term. The American Gas Association estimates that the gas supply chain leaks about 1% of its product into the atmosphere. Leakage rates have been found as high as 66%.

More leaks could be discovered soon: Last month, a group of organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund launched a satellite that will track methane from space.

A major concern with methane pollution is that it heats the planet 80 times faster than carbon dioxide on a 20-year time scale. For this reason, reducing methane emissions is considered the fastest way to slow the rate of global warming.

Lawmakers and officials have criticized the Kingston project

At least 10 members of Congress have publicly spoken out against TVA’s gas plans.

Last month, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to TVA that echoed EPA’s critiques.

“The proposed Kingston gas plant is part of the alarming eight-plant, multibillion-dollar methane gas buildout that TVA has undertaken since 2021. It is bad for the climate, community health, and customers’ pocketbooks,” the lawmakers wrote.

Last year, former Mayor John Cooper’s Administration said the Kingston project would continue a legacy of pollution that was “unacceptable.”

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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