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TVA Votes Thursday on Future of Western Kentucky Coal-Fired Power Plant

Becca Schimmel, Ohio Valley Resource

The small town of Paradise, Kentucky isn’t feeling so blissful these days as the the future of the Paradise Fossil Plant remains in question.

The western Kentucky community could learn on Thursday the fate of its last coal-fired power plant in Muhlenberg County.  The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Board of Directors will meet in Chattanooga, TN to consider closing the Kentucky plant, as well as the coal-powered Bull Run Fossil Plant in Oak Ridge, TN.

In an environmental assessment released on Monday, the TVA recommended retiring the nearly 50-year-old Paradise Fossil Plant, citing operating costs, unreliability, and the need for repairs. 

"The retirement of a unit with high maintenance and other costs would facilitate TVA’s statutory mission to provide reliable power at the lowest system cost," the report noted.

The TVA has shuttered several coal-fired power plants in recent years, and the federal utility says those decisions have come down to economics and the changing nature of the power grid. 

“Some of these coal plants, including Paradise, are meant to come online and run for long periods of time, and because of our fluctuating load these days, we’re more often having to keep up with peak demands," TVA Spokesman Scott Brooks told WKU Public Radio.

Danny Byars works for Murray Energy which supplies coal to the Paradise plant.  His job prospects aren’t as dim as those who work at the plant, but he still worries about long-term job security.

“We went from four crews to three crews already," Byars noted. "The only way we can keep surviving, ya know, if they shut down, then we have to find someone else to buy our coal.”

Byars has friends who work at the Paradise plant and other friends who moved from Kentucky when Units 1 and 2 were replaced by natural gas in 2017.  Unit 3, which has been operating since 197, is the TVA's last coal-fired unit in western Kentucky.

The plant currently has 130 employees and TVA says some will be offered other positions within the federal utility and about 40 percent of the workforce eligible for retirement.  Still, that’s little comfort for their families and the community as a whole.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says if the facility is closed, the repercussions would be felt far and wide from plant contractors to local businesses.

“This unit’s full impact is felt far beyond the plant’s boundaries," McConnell stated. "The economy of this entire region is invested in its work and its future.”

The Paradise plant produces four billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power more than 950,000 homes.  At a pro-coal rally last weekend in Muhlenberg County, Governor Matt Bevin said the nation can’t produce the amount of electricity the world needs without coal.

“It’s wonderful to imagine that on a sunny day the sun is going to power our electricity, and the wind is going to blow and power, but it’s not real, and because it’s not realistic, this is a battle worth fighting.”

The TVA's environmental report said that energy demand in the utility's Southeast region was "flat to declining."  The TVA says coal will continue to be part of its power portfolio, but the utility has become increasingly less reliant on coal.

“We’ve moved to more diverse generation where it’s more equal parts-nuclear, coal, and natural gas which makes us less vulnerable to changes in demand, delivery, and pricing in any one of those generation sources," Brooks explained.

Environmental activists say it’s time to move on from coal-fired plants to greener forms of energy production.

The Paradise plant’s future comes down to a vote on Thursday by the TVA's seven-member board of directors.  Senator McConnell and Governor Bevin have asked that the vote be postponed until the board, which has two vacancies, is at full strength. 

The meeting on Thursday begins at 9:30 a.m. ET and will be streamed live on the TVA website.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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