Sign up for newsletter >>
Revisited: Tenneessee's Great Power Grid

Revisited: Tenneessee's Great Power Grid

Assessing TVA's implementation of rolling blackouts over Christmas

Just before we went on Christmas break, I offered a spirited defense of the power grid in Nashville, assuaging readers' concerns that we were about to encounter a snowpocalypse or some other such thing of the 2021 Texas variety. The snowpocalypse did not happen, but the TVA did institute rolling blackouts.

In their official statement, TVA officials claimed that on Friday, December 23rd, the agency “supplied more power than at any other time in its nearly 90-year history.” Additionally, they stressed, the cold snap “produced the highest winter power peak in TVA history.”

The stress on the grid led to TVA drawing down power consumption by 5 percent for 2 hours and 15 minutes. And on Saturday, December 24th, a system-wide power consumption reduction in 5-10 percent curtailments for 5 hours and 40 minutes.

Don Moul, Chief Operating Officer of TVA, told The Tennessean that freezing temperatures shut down a few of its gas and coal plants, leading to reduced grid output.

We’ll have to wait for TVA’s official report to get all the details, but I’ll offer some safe speculation on why this happened in the meantime.

First, the area that TVA serves (all of Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states) has grown immensely over the past 90 years. More customers. More demand for power.

Second, the agency’s efforts to wean itself off coal mean that it’s slowly moving towards a more “sustainable” but less reliable grid.

As we discussed the first time around, there are roughly two types of power:

  1. Baseload power sources, which produce power at a constant rate and are not designed to respond to peak demands or emergencies (e.g. nuclear, coal, and hydroelectric).
  2. Intermittent power sources, which are renewables that are subject to the elements and unable to be wound up on demand because you can’t force the wind to blow or the sun to shine (e.g., wind and solar).

Natural gas falls somewhere in between depending on the plant. At the beginning of 2021 in Texas, for example, natural gas plants froze up in response to the weather. Some gas plants are more robust than others depending on how nimbly they can respond to demand spikes.

In its move away from coal, TVA has chosen to migrate coal facilities to natural gas facilities. Neither coal nor gas are completely immune to the elements, but gas is far more fragile than coal. This shift has been resoundingly thumped by local outlets like WPLN and even by the mayor’s office.

Mayor Cooper, in one of his typical PR dispatches from nowhere, offered his suggestion that the TVA convert a coal plant (baseload) in Stewart County into a solar plant (intermittent) instead of a gas plant (middle). One can imagine a Cooper staffer digging through the news looking for something the bossman could say to make him look “with it” behind the next podium he waddled up to.

Conveniently, Cooper’s buddy, Phil Bredesen, is the chairman of Silicon Ranch. Wonder if that colored his perception. I like to joke that if I were an IRS agent or federal investigator searching for instances of corruption, the first place I’d look would be the solar industry.

For example, 71 to 97 percent of solar panel components in the US come from China. The US solar market only makes economic sense due to China’s massive subsidization of components, their employ of slave labor in their production, and their use of coal to power the facilities. In addition to that, the USG pours its own subsidies on solar. Short of massive subsidization, a “solar future” is a mirage. Someone get Cooper a camel back to civilization.

Now, back to reality: reducing the number of base load sources on TVA’s grid will make those rolling blackouts we experienced much worse. This is an objective fact that you cannot get around. Despite this plainly obvious fact, groups like Southern Environmental Law Center have used the blackouts to bemoan the ineffectiveness of fossil fuels and advocate for the state to institute austerity measures for citizens.

If that sounds backward to you, it is. It’s straight up idiocy. The only solution here is nuclear power. Anyone advocating for your austerity to ease grid load, advocating for wind and solar, and ignoring nuclear power should be shunned and ignored. Maybe even marooned to Elba.