Five of TVA’s coal-fired power plants have been closed over the years. But these shuttered powerhouses deserve recognition for the role they played in the development of the Valley—generating electricity, jobs and history.
Strictly speaking, TVA was not founded as simply a power company. Yet the dams it built to control flooding in the area provided a powerful side benefit—hydroelectric generation. Once the public got a taste of it, demand for electricity grew. And as the Valley began to prosper—thanks to TVA’s economic development success—industrial demand grew, too.
In the 1940s, as the United States’ entry into World War II loomed, demand was increasing from various companies that supported the emerging war effort. Those demands came in particular from the aluminum industry—which was involved in the production of everything from helmets and identification tags to gas masks and airplanes—and from the Valley's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for its nuclear work.
Demand quickly outpaced the amount of electricity the hydroelectric dams could produce, and TVA saw the need for a new kind of generation: coal. TVA acquired from the War Department and purchased utility-owned coal-fired plants before it completed construction of its first coal-fired plant—Watts Bar Steam Plant in 1942. At its height in 1985, TVA’s coal fleet would include 12 plants.
Changing technology, increased environmental regulations and economics have shifted the importance of coal in TVA’s overall power generation portfolio. To date, five coal-fired plants have been closed, and more will close in the coming years as TVA’s generation emphasis continues to shift toward cleaner sources of power.
TVA's coal plants, though, have earned a part in history because of their many contributions to the Tennessee Valley. Here's a look at five shuttered powerhouses.
Muscle Shoals, Ala.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building Wilson Dam in 1918 to provide power for the two nitrate plants that were producing munitions for World War I. However, the dam would take six years to complete. With the need for power urgent, the Corps began construction of the Wilson Steam Plant in 1918, and it began generating electricity a mere 10 months later. The War Department transferred ownership from the Corps to TVA in 1933, the year the agency was formed.
The plant was used intermittently during the 1940s and 1950s, as larger plants were built and could produce sufficient power for the Valley. The steam plant was retired in 1966 and demolished in 1968.
Spring City, Tenn.
Watts Bar was constructed in 1942, and last generated electricity in 1982. Its four units were able to generate 267 MW. As the first TVA-built plant, architects wanted Watts Bar to be a template for future plants, and also a showcase. Planners created a vantage point for people to view the turbine room and created a spacious overlook balcony, which was copied at future plants. Though the steam plant was demolished in 2011, the Watts Bar reservation still contains a dam and a nuclear plant, and was once the only TVA site to feature three types of generation.
Construction was completed in 1957, and supplied power through 2012. The plant featured four coal-fired units and generated 704 MW of power—enough electricity to power 350,000 homes. Initially planned as a six-unit plant, only four 200 MW units were constructed. Units 1 and 2 went into commercial operation in 1955, while Unit 3 went online in 1956 and Unit 4 the following year. The plant will be torn down in coming months, and the vacant land sold for industrial or commercial purposes.
The plant closed with the completion of the John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, a gas plant with a summer peaking capacity of 880 MW. Environmental investigations are being conducted at this site under the TDEC Order on coal combustion residuals (CCR). View the schedule.
Widows Creek was the third steam-electric project built by TVA. Units 1 to 8 were built between 1952 and 1965. Units 1 to 6 were idled in 2013 and 2014, Unit 8 in 2014 and Unit 7 in 2015. Together, the eight units could generate 1,800 megawatts.
At the time of its first construction, Unit 7—at 500 MW—was the largest steam-generating unit in the world. (By the time sister Unit 8 was completed, also a 500 MW unit, other plants being built boasted larger megawatt capabilities.)
Colbert was the sixth steam-electric project to be planned, designed and constructed by TVA. Units 1 to 4 were built between 1951 and 1955, with a fifth unit added in 1965. Total generation capability was 1,000 MW. Unit 5 was idled in 2013, while the other units ceased generation in 2016. The final overall cost of the plant construction was slightly more than $99 million, or $124 per kilowatt, which was the lowest cost per kilowatt of any of the seven TVA steam plants built in the 1950s. The cost to purchase the land and the land rights—included in the grand total—was $232,089.53.