NORRIS, Tenn. – With no clear national energy policy but new regulations expected, Tennessee Valley Authority executives say they’re hedging their bets, hoping to be one of the nation’s leading providers of low-cost and cleaner energy by 2020.
“We know changes are coming,” including changes in emissions standards, said John McCormick, TVA senior vice president of river operations.
During a recent media tour of Norris Dam, McCormick said the nation’s largest public utility wants to lead the country in providing additional power through new nuclear plants, including small modular reactors, and reduce its heavy reliance on coal. In a revised vision approved last August, TVA board members also said they want to lead the nation in improving air quality and lead the Southeast in increasing energy efficiency.
There has been a recent push among at least some federal officials to build more nuclear power plants. During a recent visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn said the United States is falling behind other countries, including China, in the construction of new reactors. Blackburn, a Republican from Middle and West Tennessee, said she supports a proposal by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, also a Tennessee Republican, to build 100 nuclear power plants within 20 years.
Experts say nuclear power plants are cheap to operate but very expensive to build, costing billions of dollars.
McCormick said one of the main obstacles is the question of what to do with the used nuclear fuel. He said some states are now saying that nuclear power plants can’t be built within their borders until the storage question is resolved.
President Barack Obama’s administration filed a motion in March 2010 to withdraw the license application for a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., a site that has been under study for years. Obama directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to establish a “blue-ribbon” commission that will provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the country’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
The wastes have been stored at temporary locations across the country.
McCormick said a second reactor at Watts Bar near Spring City should be online by 2013, providing TVA an additional 1,200 megawatts. TVA has also proposed building a reactor at its Bellefonte site in North Alabama.
In Oak Ridge, TVA might begin using new, smaller modular nuclear reactors by 2020, possibly at the abandoned Clinch River Breeder Reactor site on the west end of town. One of the small reactors could produce 125 megawatts of electricity, or about 10 percent as much as conventional reactors.
McCormick said TVA also plans to reduce peak power usage through demand management tools, including time-of-use rates. TVA provides electricity to nine million people in seven states.
TVA says it has already invested $5.3 billion to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide at its coal plants about 90 percent from their peak levels, and the public power company has also announced plans to idle 1,000 megawatts of its oldest and least efficient coal plants and review other units.
Norris Dam tour
TVA representatives talked about river management, reservoir operations, and power production before leading the media on a rare tour of Norris Dam, which was completed in 1936 and is 265 feet high. Powered by up to 70,000 gallons of water per second, the dam’s two 300-ton turbine units can generate a total of 132 megawatts of electricity.
The dam has a crew of five workers and can be controlled remotely from Chattanooga.
David Bowling, manager of TVA’s River Forecast Center in Knoxville, said water runoff and rainfall are down about 40 percent to 50 percent this year, and TVA has been holding back on hydroproduction.
Before the tour, Rob Manning, TVA’s executive vice president for power systems in Chattanooga, talked about different forms of power production, outlining the use and benefits of nuclear, fossil, hydroelectric, and renewable power, among others. He said nuclear is the cheapest continuously operating power source, while solar power is “very, very expensive.”
Wind energy is very efficient and a clean power source, but it’s also “fairly expensive” and intermittent, generated mostly between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when it’s needed the least, Manning said.
Still, he said TVA plans to expand its wind energy production capacity to roughly 1,500 megawatts.
Manning said there is not a lot of solar energy potential in Tennessee. Meanwhile, sites in the Southwest could be good locations for geothermal and solar power generation, while sites in Montana might be good for wind power generation, Manning said.
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