CUMBERLAND CITY, Tenn. (WTVF) — In the small town of Cumberland City, power is hanging in the balance. Over the last two years, the Tennessee Valley Authority has been deciding what to do with a 50-year-old coal-fired plant that powers a million homes a year.
"We certainly didn’t make this decision lightly," said Scott Brooks, a spokesperson for TVA.
This week, TVA officially announced their decision. Their Cumberland Fossil Plant will be phased out over the next five years, and in its place, will be a natural gas plant. Brooks says they chose natural gas because they need an electricity supply around the clock.
"When the sun’s not shining, when the wind’s not blowing — you need something that can pick up that generation loss — and right now that’s natural gas," said Brooks.
But that kind of explanation came as a shock to an environmental group, the Sierra Club.
"There’s battery storage technologies out there that can help with that as well," said Amy Kelly, who leads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Tennessee Campaign.
Kelly says, not only can renewable energy be used 24/7, there was an example just weeks ago of why green energy might be more reliable. In the days before Christmas 2022, TVA's power grid became overloaded, in part, because the Cumberland Fossil Plant and natural gas plants elsewhere couldn't operate in the extreme cold.
"Renewable energy actually outperformed fossil plants in this extreme weather event," said Kelly.
TVA is hopeful by the time the new natural gas plant is built in Stewart County, the technology will improve.
"This new plant is expected to be efficient, resilient, to better withstand any potential issues like what we had in December," said Brooks.
The energy giant also deliberately only planned one natural gas unit replacement, instead of two on the Cumberland City site.
"Unit two, the options are open. We want to consider all the available technology that we think will be in place by that time," said Brooks.
"Why not leapfrog that and go straight to renewable energy where there’s no carbon emissions?" said Kelly.
For the Sierra Club, it's not just power that hangs in the balance — it's our environment too.
"Gas plants still pollute," said Kelly.
The closure of the Cumberland Fossil Plant could create economic hardship in rural Stewart County. Currently, the coal plant employs nearly 200 people. A new natural gas plant may only require about 30-40 people.