Trump's Fighting to Keep a Costly, Unreliable Coal Plant Running. TVA Wants to Shut It Down.

The old Paradise plant is among the least reliable coal power plants in the country. TVA says it isn’t needed, but Republicans demanded it keep burning coal.

Paradise Fossil Plant, Kentucky. Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

In rallies and videos, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Sen. Mitch McConnell argued that the nearly 50-year-old Paradise coal plant should continue operating to help the coal mining industry. Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

Update: On Feb. 14, the TVA board voted to retire both the Paradise and Bull Run coal-fired power plants. 

The U.S. president has joined Kentucky's governor and the coal state's U.S. senators in trying to pressure the Tennessee Valley Authority to keep a 49-year-old coal-fired power plant operating, even though the nation's largest public electric utility has concluded that the plant is unreliable, no longer needed and too expensive to repair and operate.

Shutting the Paradise Fossil Plant down would avoid customers having to pay for the aging plant's frequent repairs. It also would reduce emissions that cause lung-damaging smog by as much as 11.5 percent across TVA's seven-state system, and cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 4 percent, the federally owned utility said in an assessment released Monday.

But none of that is stopping Gov. Matt Bevin and other top elected officials from this coal state from fighting to keep the plant's last coal burners turned on. President Donald Trump added more pressure Monday with a tweet in defense of coal.

Bevin also suggested that federal regulators may be about to step in with a new study on power plants and national security that could bolster coal, though exactly what study he was referring to wasn't clear. The governor's office didn't respond to a request for more details.

At a pro-coal rally over the weekend, the governor joined representatives of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul and other Kentucky officials to pressure the TVA board, which meets this week, to keep burning Kentucky-mined coal at the Paradise plant.

"We sit on hundreds of years of supply of the most reliable, most stable, most affordable source of electricity production that the world has ever known," Bevin said. "There is no capacity now if we shut this facility and others like it to provide what America needs."

The new environmental assessment by TVA, however, found that energy demand in the utility's Southeast region was "flat to declining." The study concluded that "the retirement of a unit with high maintenance and other costs would facilitate TVA's statutory mission to provide reliable power at the lowest system cost."

The Paradise coal unit is among the least reliable coal-fired power plants in the United States based on the frequency of forced shutdowns, TVA found.

Politicians Focus on Benefit to Coal Mining

The TVA board meets Thursday in Chattanooga to decide whether to retire the 1,150 megawatt Paradise Unit 3. It will now be weighing the political pressure from the president and Kentucky's political leaders against its own experts' analyses and the interest of its customers.

"Closure is one option they could consider," said TVA spokesman Scott Brooks.

"We respect the governor's point of view and appreciate all the input we have received from the public and elected officials," he said Monday.

Locator: Paradise Fossil Plant, Kentucky

Trump got involved later that day, declaring via Twitter that "coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!" TVA responded with its own Twitter post, saying "coal is an important part of TVA's power generation mix and we will give serious consideration to all factors as we make this decision."

McConnell, in a video, urged TVA to wait until the TVA board gets two new Trump appointees. "Kentuckians strongly oppose moving away from coal, and I would hope that the TVA listens to our voices," he said.

The TVA board on Thursday is also weighing the potential closure of its 800-megawatt, 1960s-era Bull Run coal-burning plant near Knoxville, Tennessee, for similar reasons.

The potential votes come as Kentucky continues to shed coal mining jobs, despite President Trump's promise to restore the industry. Coal mining employment in the state has fallen from 17,115 workers in 2010 to 6,409 last year, according to the latest state government report.

TVA Has Been Closing Marginal Coal Boilers

The Paradise plant was once one of the largest coal-burning plants in the country, with a generating capacity large enough to supply more than a million homes. It was made famous by folk singer John Prine's song about the ravages of strip mining from "the world's largest shovel."

Its first two coal-burning units were shuttered in 2017, replaced by a large natural gas power plant. TVA has been shedding its marginal coal boilers like these over the last several years as the price for cleaner-burning natural gas has plummeted, making coal less competitive.

Keeping outdated plants like Paradise's coal-burning unit and the Bull Run plant operating with their 1960s technology costs power customers more in higher electricity bills and adds to their burden of pollution, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which closely follows TVA and encourages it to shift to renewable energy.

Is the Governor Expecting Federal Intervention?

The governor, who is running for re-election this year, called on the TVA board to at least delay its Paradise vote until the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency completes a study that looks at "the security and reliability of our electrical grid."

"It's a national defense issue as much as anything else," he claimed, saying he's worried that terrorists may sabotage natural gas pipelines.

What study the governor was referring to isn't clear, said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School, who follows FERC proceedings.

FERC opened a review of the "resilience" of the nation's electrical grid last year after the commission unanimously rejected a Trump administration effort to reward utilities for keeping large stockpiles of coal, supposedly to improve the reliability of power supplies. But there has also been speculation, based on a leaked Department of Energy memo, that the department has launched an energy reliability study based on national security issues, such as the potential for attacks on natural gas pipelines, Peskoe said.

What is clear, Peskoe said, is that the Trump administration has been wanting to do something big for the coal industry and so far has been unable to deliver. "I assume they still have this goal," he said. "We are waiting for the next move."

TVA Decision Will Impact an Entire Region

The Energy Information Agency shows most of the coal shipped to the Paradise plant during the first nine months of 2018 came from Kentucky mines that are part of Murray Energy Corp., which is led by coal baron and Trump supporter Robert E. Murray. Murray has pushed for a government-ordered bailout of coal.

Bevin, in a video of the rally posted on his Facebook page, argued that coal is cheap and reliable—even though the assessment by the TVA found the Paradise coal-burning unit neither cheap nor reliable, due to its age and condition.

The TVA review concluded that the Paradise coal-burning unit requires "significant" investment for it to comply with Environmental Protection Agency requirements for managing its coal-burning waste and water discharges, and also needs "large investments" to upgrade its overall condition. 

Brooks, the TVA spokesman, declined to comment on details of the plant's condition or the anticipated cost of its needed repairs. He said that would be presented to the board on Thursday.

At the rally, speakers took shots at former President Barack Obama and prominent Democratic politicians and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

"We are not talking about burning coal in Paris, where they may not want it," said Terry Carmack, Sen. McConnell's state director. "We are not talking about burning coal in (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco. We are not talking about burning coal in (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer's New York City. We are talking about burning coal here, where people actually support burning coal."

"TVA needs to make the right decision and burn coal," he said.

Smith, in an interview, said he understands the coal economy has suffered. But the decision about Paradise and Bull Run affect the economy and environment in the whole TVA region, not just western Kentucky, with implications for the global environment.

"Change is hard," he said. "But this is a change that's necessary. Coal is just dirty from cradle to grave."

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