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WASHINGTON -- In documents supporting their call for hefty reductions in carbon emissions from Tennessee power plants, federal officials suggest how the state can make the biggest strides -- investing more in nuclear power and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Those just happen to be two items already on the agenda of the Tennessee Valley Authority, although environmentalists say its commitment to renewables needs to be much bigger.

The Environmental Protection Agency stresses the strategy outlined for Tennessee is only a suggestion and the state remains free to devise its own plan for meeting the new standards.

"It is imperative for Tennessee that any plan that may be required balance carbon reductions with providing competitive energy prices and ensuring the reliability of our electric system," said Kelly Brockman, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Republicans in Congress continue to say the rules, announced last week, should be blocked before they prove disastrous to electricity rates and jobs.

"This is just one more example of the federal government expanding the big, wet blanket of burdensome regulations on our economy that put people out of work and make it harder to find a job," said Sen. Lamar Alexander.

"This regulation also bypasses congressional authority -- it's the job of Congress, not unelected bureaucrats, to determine whether and how to regulate carbon dioxide."

Environmentalists call that "a sky-is-falling attitude" that is more about politics than science.

"Senator Alexander knows better, but he is protecting his right flank," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "The economic sky is not going to fall, particularly in Tennessee."

While the state has the freedom to devise its own methods, the EPA rules -- due to be finalized next year -- are strict about calling for a 39 percent reduction in carbon emissions from Tennessee power plants by 2030.

By then, emissions should be no more than 1,163 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour by 2030 -- down from the 2012 level of 1,903 pounds, the EPA says.

Noah Long of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls it "a pretty significant reduction for Tennessee."

The federal agency, which also issued required reductions specific to other states, estimates Tennessee can get a 20-22 percent reduction just from more emphasis on nuclear and renewables alone. Other, smaller reductions could come from more use of natural gas, energy efficiency measures and improvement in heat rate, the amount of fuel burned to generate one kilowatt of power.

The EPA released its documents as the TVA, the federal power entity serving nearly the whole state, tries to finish a new "integrated resource plan" of its own for meeting power needs over the next 20 years.

Increased use of nuclear power is one area where EPA's thoughts align well with TVA's. Its Watts Bar 2 nuclear plant, costing $4 billion to $4.5 billion, is scheduled to become operational by the end of 2015.

Generating enough power to serve 650,000 homes, Watts Bar 2 will equal or exceed the power of any of TVA's 10 coal plants, which include seven in Tennessee. It's retiring at least two -- Colbert in Alabama and Johnsonville in Humphreys County.

Because of the new nuclear plant -- projected to be the first to come on line nationwide in the 21st century -- and other TVA initiatives, including the expected retirements of even more coal facilities, the state is well on the way to getting where the EPA wants it, Smith said.

"TVA will have no trouble meeting 1,100 (pounds per megawatt hour) by 2020," he added, citing TVA documents.

But one area where TVA will definitely have to improve a lot, Smith and other environmentalists contend, is in non-hydro-powered renewable energy. Currently, such sources provide only 1 percent to 3 percent of its power.

Tennessee is also one of a dozen states that have no voluntary or required renewable portfolio standard, calling for renewables to make up a certain portion of a utility's power portfolio by a set date.

"Something like that would help," said Kyle Aarons of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a think tank.

Smith added ratepayers like their energy coming from clean sources.

"You are going to see more and more demand for renewables," he said. "They (TVA) are doing some but not as much as we would like."

Bill Johnson, TVA's chief executive officer, has pledged to expand renewables.

But one form of renewables, wind power, has never sat well with Alexander, who regards wind turbines as undependable power sources, as well as eyesores and large-scale bird killers.

On the other hand, Alexander contends the country could use 100 new nuclear power plants.

But the state's senior senator, up for re-election in November, vehemently opposes the new carbon rules, regardless of whether they encourage more nuclear power.

He and fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker are co-sponsoring legislation that would stop the new EPA carbon rules in their tracks. The bill originated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who himself is up for re-election in one of the nation's biggest coal-mining states.

"My response to the politicians is this -- that they are staking out an ideologically based position that is not based on facts," Smith said.

Contact Paul C. Barton at pbarton@gannett.com

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