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The Tennessee Valley Authority is gathering public input on a long-range plan for the type and mix of energy sources it needs to provide power to the region.

Finding the right mix of coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro-electric, renewable energy and efficiency programs is the goal of the 18-month-long planning process, TVA Vice President Joe Hoagland said.

"It takes a very long, strategic look at the assets TVA needs to provide low-cost electricity for the people in the Tennessee Valley," Hoagland said in an interview.

The direction TVA takes will ultimately affect how much residents pay for electricity, and the federal utility is embarking on the planning process at a time when it faces scrutiny from a variety of interest groups.

TVA is spending more than $1 billion to install new pollution controls at its coal-fired power plant in Gallatin. Environmental groups sued TVA for not fully studying alternatives, including retiring the aging facility.

Meanwhile, the investment group Credit Suisse is pushing TVA to resurrect an incomplete nuclear power plant in Alabama. The nuclear plant would allow TVA to avoid rate increases and ultimately prove cheaper than installing expensive carbon-capturing technology to comply with new greenhouse gas limits, the group argues.

From another quarter, conservation groups and the solar industry in Tennessee have criticized TVA for not doing enough to support that renewable resource. They say TVA's small-scale solar program is stifling the industry because it sets a cap on solar power far below demand.

Hoagland said gathering input helps TVA understand what the public and other stakeholders consider important. The "Integrated Resource Plan" looks at different fuel options and tries to anticipate how those might evolve over the next two decades, he said.

TVA completed its last plan in 2011 and typically only does an update every three to five years. But Hoagland said changes in the energy industry require an earlier update.

Natural gas prices have dropped dramatically in recent years in the midst of a nationwide surge in production. At the same time, TVA's growth in power demand has slowed, Hoagland said.

The 2011 plan anticipated natural gas prices at about $6 per million BTUs, escalating over time, Hoagland said. Now, prices are between $3 and $3.50, he said. The current plan also assumed a 2 percent to 3 percent rate of growth, while TVA now anticipates growth at less than 1 percent.

In addition, TVA hopes to complete the Watts Bar Nuclear Unit 2 plant in 2015 and retire at least 2,700 megawatts of less-efficient coal capacity by 2018.

Anne Davis, managing attorney in Nashville for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Tuesday that she appreciates that TVA is accelerating the start of the new resource plan. She said she expects the new plan to focus on how TVA will replace its "oldest, dirtiest, and least efficient coal plants with clean and modern resources like solar, wind, hydro optimization, energy efficiency, and demand response."

"The precipitous drop in cost of renewables and technological improvements in efficiency — coupled with enormous public demand for both of these resources — will demand more attention in this IRP," Davis said by email.

"We have already been working with TVA on these issues, and we are committed to helping TVA modernize its long-term portfolio in a way that's protective of ratepayers' health, environment, and pocketbooks."

The first public meeting is set for Thursday in Knoxville. A second is scheduled for Nov. 6 in Memphis. But to encourage more input, TVA is allowing the public to participate through online webinars. The public can access those at www.tva.gov/irp.

TVA hopes to use the webinars and a social media outreach effort to boost public participation, particular with younger residents, Hoagland said.

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