Retirees remember Johnsonville, TVA evaluates coal’s future

A chain of dynamite charges put a bookend to the 70-year history of the Johnsonville Fossil Plant today as both the 600-foot stack and the 10-unit powerhouse collapsed into a cloud of dust. The plant generated its first electricity in 1951 and its last on New Year’s Eve of 2017.

“Safety is our primary mission, and I’d like to thank the team who were able to complete this portion of the project without any issues,” said Roger Waldrep, TVA vice president, Major Projects. “Now we can move forward to making this site ready for development to help the local community.” 

TVA began plans to shutter the plant more than a decade ago to comply with environmental regulations and for economic reasons.

Bob Joiner, a former unit operator, first came to TVA in 1987 and served at Johnsonville for more than three decades. He retired in 2018 after working on a transition team that severed the plant from the reservation’s switchyard.

“I’m sad to see it go,” Joiner said. “That plant was built in the 1940s by the greatest generation. They put all that together with nothing but pencils, paper and slide rules, and it was built to last.”

Korean War veteran Larry Williams came to Johnsonville in 1954 after his time in the military. Williams served as an operations supervisor at the plant until he retired in 1995.

“It’s like losing an old friend. A lot of memories go down the tube when I think about it being gone,” Williams said.

But despite the demolition, Williams said the close-knit friendships between those who worked at the plant remain constant. “When you run into Wal-Mart and bump into someone, you always end up blocking the aisle for a minute just shooting the bull.”

Former coworker Walter Long agreed.

“I hated to see it go. It was a second home for me for 29 years,” Long said. “All the guys I worked with were like family. I reckon everything has its day, but that plant sure helped a lot of families in Humphreys County while it was running. It was a mainstay of this county.”

During its 66-year run, the plant employed more than 330 employees at its peak. When the plant closed, most employees were offered opportunities at other TVA generation sites. Some retired and others chose employment options in the area.

For more than a half century, the 1,350-megawatt plant helped meet the power demands of the region. It was considered TVA’s most-reliable coal plant in its final three years of operation. 

In 2011, Johnsonville’s Unit 1 had the second-longest run of a coal plant worldwide, with continuous operation for 1,082 days. In 2015, the plant’s Unit 4 had the third-longest run worldwide, with continuous operation for 1,073 days.

“The team set out to honor the Johnsonville legacy by applying the same pride and integrity in the dismantling of the facility that was exemplified in the building, maintaining, and operation of it for almost 70 years,” Waldrep said.

Johnsonville’s New Future

Currently, there are 20 combustion turbines at the site, a number of which will be retired as new, more efficient natural gas generation is added to the system. The utility conditionally approved placing advanced light-weight combustion turbines—known as aeroderivatives—at the site pending environmental reviews that will start next year.

TVA is also eyeing Johnsonville’s combustion turbines for a possible carbon-capture demonstration. The project could identify ways to lower the cost of carbon utilization technologies, and potentially help advance future hydrogen generation technologies.

This month, TVA announced it is investing $1 billion to build new lower-emission, natural gas-fueled combustion turbines at shuttered coal plants in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and Paradise, Kentucky.

“As a technology leader, our coal sites can serve as a testbed as we build cleaner energy systems that drive jobs and investment into our communities,” said TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash.

Lyash said TVA is reducing carbon emissions because it plays a significant role in the region’s economic development as more job creators, manufacturers and local power companies are demanding cleaner energy.

Since 2005, TVA has reduced emissions by more than 60 percent compared to 2005 levels. The utility plans to reduce that number to 70 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2035 and achieve net-zero emission generation by 2050.

“TVA never stands still,” Lyash said. “Building a clean, low-cost energy future is an essential path for our region to compete for jobs in the new clean economy.”

TVA Energy System of the Future

TVA has retired six coal plants since 2012. The retirements reduced the amount of energy produced by coal to about 14 percent of its entire generation portfolio. TVA is now considering retiring the entire coal fleet by 2035 – pending necessary approvals and environmental reviews.

As TVA phases out coal, the utility is investing in solar, nuclear and natural gas. It is also exploring advanced clean-generation technologies as well as upgrades to its 109-unit conventional hydro-electric fleet.

According to Lyash, TVA is a national leader, with 63 percent carbon-free generation, making it the greenest utility in the Southeast with 50 percent more renewable generation than its closest regional peer.

By 2035, TVA plans to add about 10,000 megawatts of solar power. To do this, the utility plans to use natural gas to keep the power system reliable as coal plants retire.

The economic development success of this renewable energy strategy is already evident.

Since 2018, TVA’s Green Invest solar program has attracted nearly $2.7 billion in solar investment and procured over 2,000 megawatts of solar on behalf of its customers, including City of Knoxville, General Motors, Jack Daniels, Facebook, Google and Vanderbilt University.    

“Businesses want clean energy, and we are committed to using our power system to revitalize both rural and urban communities,” Lyash said. “Our region is open for business, and TVA is helping make our communities the premier destination for companies that want to achieve their sustainability goals.”