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Environmentalists demand TVA records on green energy plans

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit claims the federally controlled Tennessee Valley Authority is wrongfully withholding documents about its commitment to renewable energy, or lack thereof.

(CN) — All they wanted was a peak behind the curtain of the nation’s largest government-owned energy provider. A small, constitutionally protected glance into a big bureaucracy, one with 10 million customers and plans to increase certain reliance on fossil fuels at a time when the Biden administration has called for a zero-carbon electric grid by 2035 and Congress recently allocated $370 billion for climate and green energy initiatives.

In July 2021, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sent a pair of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Tennessee Valley Administration seeking communications between board members, executives, lobbyists and others regarding the utility’s plans to build new gas-generating plants and pipelines in Cumberland City and Kingston, Tennessee.

Expressing concern that the TVA didn’t properly consider or evaluate clean energy alternatives, the environmentalist group sought emails and other official records and correspondence, but TVA either partially or fully denied the center’s requests. 

The first request concerned a “specific list of energy related matters” and identified specific search terms including “renewable energy standard, clean energy standard, rooftop solar, climate change,” etc. The center also sought communications with or concerning several specific energy interests, but in August 2021, TVA reported it had no records responsive to the request. 

The group administratively appealed the decision, claiming TVA did not adequately explain the denial, but the agency dismissed the appeal in September 2021.

The second request took longer, seeking “all reports, data or summaries that had been created or reviewed by any of four high-level TVA executives on a series of energy-related topics.” TVA released a handful of responsive records in April 2022, but also notified the center it was withholding some 9,000 other responsive records from public scrutiny.

According to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, “TVA claimed that it was entitled to withhold every word and number on every one of these pages because releasing any of them ‘would have a chilling effect on open and frank discussion and exchange of information within TVA,’ … and also assert[ing] that some of the records contained confidential customer information protected by FOIA exemption.”

Again the group appealed administratively, but TVA cited exemptions for trade secrets and privileged intra-agency memos and denied the appeal, again refusing the center’s request for an explanation.

In a statement Tuesday announcing the FOIA lawsuit seeking disclosure of the records, Gaby Sarri-Tobar, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice program, said TVA’s decisions amount to playing a game of “hide the ball with the region’s energy future.” 

“People have a right to know why this public utility and its board are standing in the way of affordable, safe, renewable energy," Sarri-Tobar said. "If TVA had nothing to hide, it would release these public records so customers could see why the agency decided to double down on dirty fossil fuels and who influenced those decisions.”

The center and TVA are at odds over how to portray the utility’s commitment to clean energy. In Tuesday's statement citing a Sierra Club report, the group claimed “TVA plans to retire just 3% of its coal plants by 2030 and build more than four gigawatts of new gas, the second-largest planned gas buildout among all major utilities.”

But according to a 2021 strategic planning document provided by TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler, the agency is moving toward retiring all of its existing coal units by 2035. 

“This will build on the nearly 60% reduction in carbon emissions over 2005 levels that we have already achieved,” Fiedler noted. “The Strategic Intent document lays out our plans for a 70% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2035. It also notes our aspiration of being net zero by 2050 through collaboration with other government agencies, utilities and research institutions to support development of the innovative technology needed to reach that point without impacting reliability, resiliency or cost.”

Fiedler couldn’t speak to the complaint specifically, but said TVA adheres to FOIA principles and exemptions. Separately, the two planned gas plants — “modern" ones, he noted — are being explored “to fully enable that transition, as well as more rapidly integrate intermittent renewable energy generation without impacting the reliability or resiliency of our power system.”

Fiedler added the TVA recently issued a request for proposal for 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free generation from a variety of sources to be available by 2029, but said specifics are unavailable.

In comments filed last week, the Center for Biological Diversity urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject TVA’s permit application for the Cumberland City plant.

“If TVA insists it’s cheaper to build new fossil fuel projects and quash renewable energy alternatives, the public should at least be able to see the math,” Sarri-Tobar said. “All we’ve seen so far are empty promises and greenwashing. Without the details, people should assume TVA is withholding the data because the numbers simply don’t add up.”

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