The Tennessee Valley Authority shut down its oldest fossil plant still in operation this week as part of the utility’s ongoing shift away from coal-fired generation that should reduce the share of power TVA gets from burning coal by next year to only a third of what it provided a generation ago.
On New Year’s Eve, Richard “Mac” Flowers, a 91-year-old TVA retiree, opened the breaker at the Johnsonville Fossil plant to shut down the coal plant after 66 years of operation. The shutdown of the last unit at the 10-unit Johnsonville plant brought to 30 the number of coal units TVA has retired in the past five years at a half dozen fossil plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.
By the end of 2018, TVA also plans to shut down the Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis, replacing the three coal units there with a new combined cycle, natural gas plant. TVA continues to operate coal plants at Bull Run, Cumberland, Gallatin and Kingston and at some of the units at Paradise and Shawnee, but TVA expects coal to generate only about 20 percent of TVA’s total power by 2020, down from nearly two thirds of TVA’s generation in the 1980s. Despite promises by President Trump to bring back America’s coal industry, the federal government’s biggest utility appears unlikely to ever buy as much coal as it did a generation ago.
“Coal will continue to be a key part of our generation portfolio for many years,” TVA President Bill Johnson said last year. “But we’re on a path (of decreasing coal’s share of power production) and there’s no turning back.” TVA has no plans to build new coal-fired generation even though one of TVA’s new board members, retired Armstrong Coal Co. executive vice president Kenneth Allen, previously voiced support for reviving coal-fired generation and criticized President Obama for proposing regulations on coal that “slam the door on an already reeling industry.” The share of TVA energy generated by coal-fired plants fell from 34 percent of the electricity produced in fiscal 2015 to 25 percent in fiscal 2017 and is on pace to drop to only 20 percent next year.
Under a 2011 agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups, TVA agreed to clean up or shut down its oldest coal-fired plants to reduce air pollution and coal ash contamination in area streams and rivers. The first units of the Johnsonville plant began operation in 1951 as one of TVA’s earliest coal plants, and by 1959, the plant had grown to 10 units with a generating capacity of 1,350 megawatts, or enough power for about two cities the size of Chattanooga.
Despite its age, Johnsonville assistant plant manager Steve Holland said the plant in New Johnsonville, Tenn., has been the most reliable coal plant in the TVA fleet for the past three years. The mark of success is the equivalent forced outage rate, which measures when a unit is forced into a condition that limits it from operating at 100 percent. Johnsonville’s employees broke the all-time plant — and possibly a TVA coal plant — with a forced outage rate of only 0.24 percent in the summer of 2014. “This level of performance is unprecedented across transitional coal plants throughout the industry, and clearly highlights the commitment of Johnsonville’s hardworking employees,” Holland said. In 2011, Johnsonville’s Unit 1 had the second longest run of a coal plant worldwide, with continuous operation for 1,082 days. In 2015, the plant’s Unit 4 had the third longest run worldwide, with continuous operation for 1,073 days.
“Our people have always taken great pride and ownership in what they do here at Johnsonville, and their dedication was evident up until the very last moment we ceased operations,” Holland said as the plant shut down on Sunday night. Although Johnsonville will no longer generate electricity, the plant will continue to make steam under a co-generation partnership with Chemours, which will preserve about 1,100 jobs in Middle Tennessee. To supply between 85 and 100 megawatts of power to the Chemours plant, TVA constructed a heat-recovery steam generator on a combustion turbine at the Johnsonville Combustion Turbine plant to take over steam supply to Chemours. The Chemours plant makes a titanium dioxide product used in a variety of consumer goods.
“If Chemours had to relocate due to the closing of our Johnsonville Fossil Plant, it would have had a tremendous effect on the livelihoods of the people living in the area,” TVA Coal Fleet Vice President Sean Connors said. “It is our privilege to be able to provide a solution that will continue to foster prosperity in our community.”