By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney
|In the 1980s, TVA set out to build a number of nuclear |
power plants that never entering into operation, including
the partially completed Bellefonte plant pictured here.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is the nation’s largest public power system. TVA’s 34 gigawatts of electricity generation capacity supplies power (via distribution utilities) to 9 million customers in seven states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The federally owned corporation currently owns a diverse mix of energy resources, including coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro, wind, solar, and biomass generation. However, TVA’s draft 2015 integrated resource plan (IRP) calls for the company to forgo investing in new coal and nuclear and instead invest in new natural gas and purchase renewable energy output to meet future demand.
TVA currently purchases wind power from nine wind farms in Tennessee, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas. The company’s draft 2015 IRP calls for TVA to increase its wind power purchases between the late 2020’s and early 2030’s. The decision to purchase additional wind power would benefit the Tennessee Valley’s residents and ratepayers. Wind power has no emissions, and thus does not contribute to air or water pollution. Moreover, by offsetting the need for fossil fuel-fired generation, wind power helps to reduce power sector greenhouse gas emissions. According to Lazard’s 2014 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, wind power is currently the lowest cost generation resource available, and thus can help to insulate ratepayers from future cost increases related to fuel price volatility or carbon regulation.
Environmental stakeholders have praised TVA’s draft IRP for taking “significant steps in the right direction.” However, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) opposes TVA’s proposal to purchase additional wind power. Senator Alexander has long been an outspoken opponent of wind energy policy at the federal level. In 2014, Alexander published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wind Power Tax Credits Need to Be Blown Away.” More recently, the senator raised a number of criticisms against TVA’s decision to invest in new wind power. However, Senator Alexander’s arguments are flawed, inaccurate, and misleading, and highlight the senator’s unwillingness to support clean, low-cost electricity generation. The following discussion addresses Senator Alexander’s criticisms and attempts to set the record straight on the benefits of wind power.
1. Wind Power is Less Expensive Than Other Resources
When the total costs associated with developing and operating a wind power facility are levelized on a per megawatt-hour basis over the resource’s lifetime, wind power costs far less than new coal or nuclear generation, and may even cost less than new natural gas plants. According to Lazard’s 2014 Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, the unsubsidized levelized cost of onshore wind power average between $37 and $81 per megawatt-hour (MWh). In contrast, the levelized cost of a natural gas combined cycle unit falls between $61 and $87 per MWh, the levelized cost of coal ranges from $66 to $151 per MWh, and the levelized cost of nuclear power ranges from $92 to $132 per MWh (new nuclear plants are estimated to cost $124 per MWh).
Wind power is therefore the lowest cost electricity generation resource currently available. However, in opposing TVA’s draft 2015 IRP, Senator Alexander argues that wind power is more expensive than other generating resources, including nuclear power. The senator’s assertion that wind power is more expensive than nuclear power is factually inaccurate—when costs are averaged over facility lifespans, a megawatt-hour of wind power costs far less than a megawatt-hour of nuclear power. According to Lazard’s estimates, even a high-cost onshore wind facility costs less than the lowest cost nuclear plant. TVA’s proposal to purchase additional wind power is therefore economically prudent, and Senator Alexander’s criticism is unwarranted.
2. Wind Power Supports Clean Air and Water
Wind power is a clean, sustainable form of electricity. Wind turbines have no air emissions and are not reliant on non-renewable fuel supplies. In contrast, conventional generating resources, such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities, are powered by non-renewable fuel resources and have the potential to pollute our air and waterways. While power producers have made significant progress in reducing emissions of certain air pollutants from fossil fuel-fired power plants, commercially available pollution control technologies are currently unable to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions from these facilities. Wind power can enable electricity producers to reduce aggregate emissions from conventional generating facilities and help mitigate the climate impacts of fossil fuel generation.
Coal-fired power plants emit dangerous air pollutants, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, arsenic, mercury, and particulate matter. Natural gas-fired power plants also emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and mercury, though at much lower concentrations than coal plants. However, natural gas extraction also emits methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
Nuclear power has no direct air pollution emissions. According to EPA, however, nuclear power plants are fueled by nonrenewable uranium, and uranium mining, enrichment, and transport generates fossil fuel emissions. Nuclear power generation also uses large quantities of water, and wastewater discharges can release heavy metals and salts into local waterways. Finally, nuclear plants must replace and dispose of spent fuel every 18 to 24 months, and the safety of long-term radioactive waste disposal is highly uncertain.
On a per-capita basis, additional wind power will help TVA reduce its aggregate pollution impacts. However, Senator Alexander argues that because the Tennessee Valley’s air quality has improved dramatically over the last three decades, wind power will not provide additional benefits for the region. This argument downplays the fact that air pollution levels have decreased due to the implementation of stringent pollution controls at fossil fuel-fired power plants. Over the past 30 years, TVA has spent $5.9 billion on air pollution controls, and is currently investing an additional $1 billion in control equipment for one Tennessee coal plant. Moreover, modern pollution controls do not prevent all pollutants from entering the ambient air, and fossil fuel plants still create significant health risks for local communities.
TVA has made great strides in reducing air pollution in the Tennessee Valley, and additional wind power should assist the corporation in further reduce emissions while keeping pace with rising electricity demands. The citizens of Tennessee will benefit from TVA’s renewable energy purchases, and Senator Alexander should support the power authority’s decision to purchase additional wind power.
3. Wind Turbines Help Protect the Environment
Electricity generation was historically—and largely continues to be—a dirty, destructive industry. As the discussion above noted, fossil fuel-fired power plants emit a number of pollutants that contaminate our air and water, and nuclear facilities generate radioactive wastes that must be carefully contained into perpetuity. On a more subjective level, power plants are obtrusive, imposing facilities that may generate localized light and noise pollution. Power plants can also be significant eyesores, particularly when emissions from multi-story smokestacks are visible from many miles away.
In contrast to conventional power plants, wind farms are fairly innocuous and unobtrusive. Wind power has no emissions, and therefore does not contribute to local air or water pollution. While the turbines themselves are quite tall—some models exceed 400 feet—many power plant smokestacks are much taller. A 2011 Government Accountability Office review of coal-fired power plants found that the United States has 207 smokestacks between 500 and 699 feet tall, 63 stacks between 700 and 999 feet tall, and 14 stacks taller than 1,000 feet.
It’s no secret that Senator Alexander doesn’t like wind turbines. However, in a 2014 op-ed he argued that wind turbine height, blinking lights, noise, and associated transmission “destroy the environment.” This argument reflects an unsettling lack of awareness of the environmental impacts of conventional electricity generation. Anyone who would equate the minor annoyances of wind power with environmental destruction has presumably never witnessed the degradation caused by mountain top removal, pipeline failures, or nuclear accidents.
By criticizing TVA’s proposal to purchase additional wind power, Senator Alexander appears disconnected from the interests of his constituents. I would wager that a vast majority of Tennessee’s residents would prefer to live next door to a wind farm rather than a coal or nuclear power plant.
When the falsehoods and misrepresentations are stripped away from Senator Alexander’s arguments, the senator’s criticisms of wind power actually serve to highlight the deficiencies of conventional baseload power generation. Wind power is cleaner and less expensive than conventional coal or nuclear power, and protects ratepayers from the risk that electricity costs will increase over time due to fuel price volatility or carbon regulation. TVA’s proposal to purchase additional wind power makes sense for the residents and ratepayers of the Tennessee Valley, and it is irresponsible for Senator Alexander to undermine this decision through false or misleading assertions.