In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Mike Pence complained about the Obama administration’s war on coal. The Trump administration has made reviving the coal industry one of its key policies. It recently suffered another coal plant closure instead.
In 2019, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) considered shutting down its Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. It seemed like a chance for coal’s political friends to take a stand. They exerted tremendous pressure to keep it open, but they failed.
In fact, Obama didn’t wage the war on coal. Coal had to fight against economic reality and the growing public desire for more clean energy. Even before Trump decided to run for President, coal had lost the war.
The doomed fight to keep the Paradise plant open deserves a closer look.
An overview of the Tennessee Valley Authority
The Tennessee Valley Authority was created by an act of Congress in 1933. It is part of the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies.
It remains the only electric utility operated by the federal government. As such, its board of directors is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The TVA operates throughout Tennessee and in parts of seven neighboring states.
At first, it generated electricity strictly from the dams it built to control flooding. It built its first coal-fired plant in 1942. That one closed in 1982. By 1985, the TVA had twelve coal plants throughout its operating region.
In FY 2007, 58% of its electricity came from coal. The rest came from hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear plants. Now, half of those sites have seen coal plant closure. Nuclear power generates the largest percentage of its electricity. In the meantime, coal’s share has dropped to 15%.
So by the beginning of 2020, the TVA had shed 60% of its capacity for burning coal. It had only six coal plants left and had already decided to close two of them: Paradise and Bull Run.
The Paradise Fossil Plant opened near the western Kentucky village of Paradise in 1963. It had two coal-fired units. Then it opened a third unit in 1970. For a long time, the Paradise plant was among the largest coal plants in all the US.
The TVA retired the first two units in 2017 and replaced them with natural gas plants. Unit 3 continued to burn coal, but with great difficulty. On February 14, 2019, the TVA Board of Directors voted to retire it. It disconnected from the grid on February 1, 2020.
The Bull Run plant will close in 2023. That will leave the TVA with only four coal plants. It will surely close them in the not too distant future.
Political pressure on the TVA
When the TVA’s board reviewed the fate of its Paradise plant, Republican leaders sprang to the plants’ defense. Right before the board met, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and other state leaders, joined by Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, held a rally to hold off yet another coal plant closure.
Bevin told the rally that coal is “the most reliable, most stable, most affordable source of electricity production the world has ever known.”
He had already asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency to study the grid’s security and reliability. FERC, however, had already rejected Trump’s effort to reward utilities for keeping large coal stockpiles.
Furthermore, other speakers pointed out that the issue wasn’t burning coal in Paris, San Francisco, or New York. The Paris Accords and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, they said, didn’t represent Kentucky.
In a separate video, McConnell claimed that the citizens of Kentucky overwhelmingly opposed closing the plant. In fact, he said, most of the coal the Paradise plant used was mined in Kentucky. And so the closure of the plant would put coal mining jobs at risk in an already poor part of the country.
Employment in Kentucky’s coal industry had already fallen from 17,115 workers in 2010 to only 6,409 in 2018.
President Trump’s tweets advocating keeping Paradise open put the issue in the national spotlight. But if, as Bevin insisted, coal is stable and reliable, the Paradise plant was neither. The TVA decided to close both it and the Bull Run coal plant near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Why the TVA voted to shutter the plants
President Trump appointed the majority of the directors that voted to close the two plants. Nevertheless, they found that these two had long outlived their designed lifetimes.
Paradise, in particular, suffered forced shutdowns for maintenance at one of the highest rates in the country. And so no one could blame Obama’s war on coal for these latest coal plant closures.
By law, the TVA and most other utilities must provide reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost. Such a high-maintenance plant makes both reliability and low cost at the same time impossible.
The utility’s president and CEO, Bill Johnson, insisted that the decision was based on economics, not on the merits of coal. And, of course, economics has driven the war on coal from the beginning.
Coal used to be the least expensive fuel utilities could buy. But now, nuclear and natural gas cost less. Solar and wind have become competitive. Meanwhile, the old plants broke down so frequently that they only operated about 10% of the time. Keeping them open, therefore, made no economic sense.
But Johnson also noted a growing demand for cleaner energy.
The office of President comes with tremendous powers of persuasion. For better or for worse, Presidents usually use it effectively. In this case, however, Trump put his power and prestige behind preventing a coal plant closure. And so it spent political capital on a losing cause.
Everyone except coal company management and coal union leaders should rejoice. And work to find good jobs for out-of-work coal miners.
Trump’s fighting to keep a costly, unreliable coal plant running: TVA wants to shut it down / James Bruggers, Inside Climate News. February 13, 2019
TVA votes to close 2 coal plants, despite political pressure from Trump and Kentucky GOP / James Bruggers, Inside Climate News. February 14, 2019
TVA flips breaker to disconnect 50-year-old coal-fired Paradise Unit 3 / Rod Walton, Power Engineering. February 3, 2020
Coal smokestack. Some rights reserved by Señor Codo.
Coal-fired plant. Some rights reserved by lowjumpingfrog (link no longer works as of August 2017)
Coal miner. Photo by Khushie Singh (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons</>