Sustainability a Key to TVA’s Lower Carbon Future

Climate change. Renewables. Nuclear. Pollution. Coal. Carbon. Changing regulations. What does it all mean? We caught up with TVA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Brenda Brickhouse to help us make sense of it all.

With all the recent media reports, it’s hard to make sense of whether or how carbon emissions will affect us locally, nationally or globally. As the largest public utility in America, TVA knows that it plays an important role in providing clean, reliable and affordable energy to power the Tennessee Valley. To get some answers and sort out carbon fact from fiction we sat down with TVA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Brenda Brickhouse to get her take on the issue.

Should people in the Tennessee Valley be concerned about climate change?

Brenda Brickhouse: There is a lot of talk about climate change. So I understand why people are confused. If you look at the National Climate Assessment, which is one model that shows what’s going to happen in the climate, the Valley doesn’t see a whole lot of change in terms of temperature and precipitation. Certainly the weather is a bit more volatile, but generally the more extreme impacts of climate change are going to happen somewhere else. So I like to move the conversation to one that we can all relate to: Who doesn't want to live, work and play in a healthy environment? What matters is that we all work together to take care of the Tennessee Valley and the world beyond.

With all the media stories discussing potential policy and regulatory changes, will TVA change its position on lower carbon emissions?

No. TVA is committed to sustainability—environmental stewardship and cleaner energy for generations to come. So when you think about lowering TVA’s carbon emissions, we’re well on the path to exceeding expectations. Utilities like TVA are a solution to the climate equation. In the past we were coal heavy for a long time—for good reason. Coal was much more cost effective, both from a fuel perspective as well as from a technology perspective. But today we can build a new gas plant with lower emissions that costs less than retrofitting an aging coal plant. It’s a pure economics calculation with an environmental side benefit. In addition, we have committed about $8 billion for renewable energy over the next 20 years. So it is safe to say TVA remains on a path to a lower carbon future.

It seems like every presidential administration has a different take on environmental regulations. Should I be concerned about the changing regulatory environment? 

No. Today the Tennessee Valley has some of the cleanest air and water ever measured. I look at regulations as a continuous improvement cycle that supports public expectations. We need to review and refresh the rules from time to time. The EPA revisits regulations every so often to address new technologies and standards.  

Regulators, environmental groups and industry have a tremendous amount of data to pull from. With that said, there’s a process that takes time that you really have to go through to draft new regulations. They need to be sent out in draft form. Then people can look at them and send their comments before a new regulation is finalized. My concern is to make sure regulations and policies protect human health and are flexible, long-term solutions that are about more than just compliance or chasing the last molecule.

The United States pulled out of the Paris Accord. What does it mean to TVA and then ultimately, to me, the person of the Valley?

What matters is that TVA has been on a path to a cleaner energy future long before Paris and regulations set forth by the Clean Power Plan. First and foremost, TVA ultimately has a commitment to you which is to make the Valley a better place to live. We have been on this journey for 84 years, and lately it has largely been about balancing our generating portfolio to take into account environmental impacts and consumer costs. 

We have come a long way in less than 10 years. In 2007, we were 58 percent coal and now we’re at 24 percent. We won’t stop until we are at 15 percent by 2026. So our trajectory is cleaner, more diversified, reliable and low-cost, which enables us to meet the targets from the Clean Power Plan, or any other suggested standards. So to that end, what really matters for folks sitting around the dinner table is that TVA’s sustainability actions are lowering costs and driving jobs and investment in the Valley.

Is it all hype or does focusing on sustainability really make economic success?

The World Resources Institute, an independent, non-governmental global research organization that seeks to create equity and prosperity through sustainable natural resource management, says that data from participating companies shows that companies that invest in sustainability efforts do significantly better with investors than those that don’t.

For TVA and the people of the Tennessee Valley there is absolutely a direct correlation between sustainability and economic success. Look at what we have been able to accomplish in the Valley. Our economic development activity helped grow or retain 72,000 jobs and stimulated $8.3 billion in capital investment in the TVA service area in fiscal year 2016. A recent University of Tennessee study shows that the annual value of recreation on the Tennessee River reservoir system for the region is nearly $12 billion and 130,000 jobs. Given that TVA manages 11,000 miles of shoreline, that breaks down rather neatly to approximately $1 million per shoreline mile.

On a macro-economic scale, sustainability also makes business sense. As a business woman, I think that when you can achieve the same productivity with less energy, in many cases it’s just smart money. 

Sustainability is smart money around the house too. You can pick between light bulbs—one that lasts 20 years and lowers your monthly power bill, or one that’s a little cheaper but doesn’t. Look at refrigerators and A/C units. The new ones are much more efficient than the old ones. Because we’re building better mousetraps all the time, sustainability can save money and improve our environment.

There is a lot of talk that sustainability will cost more and we will lose jobs. Will TVA’s positive environmental actions cost me more?

For the past decade TVA has been investing in a cleaner future and your power bills have gone down because of all the work we’ve done, especially relative to the fuel component of that for sure. So we fare quite well compared to our neighbors. About two-thirds of Americans pay more for electricity than we do here in the Valley region. With the hard work of the TVA team, wholesale electricity rates are actually at 2012 levels. 

What is driving this success is our diversified generating fleet? It’s all about generating electricity with the right fuel, at the right time, with the lowest possible cost. When you do it right, you can create jobs, keep costs down and have a cleaner environment. 

If TVA works to reduce its carbon footprint, will more businesses choose to relocate to the Tennessee Valley?

If you talk to the TVA Economic Development team they will tell you that they tout our lower emissions, the raw numbers, as well as the trend we’re on and the journey we’re on to cut carbon. That’s because 90 percent of corporate real estate executives indicated that sustainability is an important consideration in their clients’ location decisions.

If you’re a company trying to go 100 percent renewable or zero carbon you have to look for ways to meet your goals. What makes the Valley attractive to companies who want to meet their sustainability goals is that our energy generating portfolio is already at 50 percent carbon free. So just by relocating to the Tennessee Valley we’ve solved 50 percent of their energy problem. So now they only have to make up the other 50 percent and we have renewable programs to help them. We also help over 600 businesses with individual carbon reporting, which is a competitive advantage.

With the support TVA provides businesses concerned about carbon we make the Valley an attractive place to do business.

What is going to drive sustainability in the future: regulation or the consumer’s attitude?

The consumer’s attitude for sure! Think about seatbelts. Twenty years ago it wasn’t cool to wear them. Today, the first thing you do is click your seatbelt. Seatbelts laws helped, but showing folks the facts that seat belts will save your life won the day.

Just like seatbelt campaigns, we spend a lot of time doing outreach on sustainability. Programs like Smart Communities Extreme Energy Makeovers and eScore Self Audit help thousands of people across the Valley live better.

Now environmental regulations are the same way. It’s not about the next regulation or compliance, it’s really more about that long term vision and strategy and how we are going to get there. When people see the direct positive impact sustainability has on their lives it will become the new normal, just like seatbelts.

Carbon Competitiveness

With climate change increasingly making news, companies are competing on the strength of their carbon footprint. TVA’s Senior Manager for Climate Policy Karen Utt is doing groundbreaking work in carbon output accounting to help Valley companies establish a competitive edge. Click here to read more about how working with TVA can give your company a carbon edge.