In Memphis, Community Action Helps Solar Plus Storage Triumph Over New Thermal Generation

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The other day, we did a story about how Uruguay transitioned to renewable energy in about a decade. The architect of that success said forget about the environmental benefits, wind, solar, and battery storage today are simply the cheapest option available when it comes to adding new supplies of electricity to the grid. Memphis Light Gas & Water didn’t get the memo, apparently. Part of the larger Tennessee Valley Authority, it proposed to replace the now shuttered Allen coal fired generating station with 200 MW of new methane gas fired generation. That was before the community came together and pushed back hard against the proposal.

According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Memphis is already facing the effects of a rapidly heating planet — increased flooding, longer droughts, record breaking heat, and extreme winter storms. Memphis families have lost power and water multiple times in recent years due to the changing weather and to storms made worse by global heating. A new study by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University shows that South Memphis is among the most climate vulnerable communities in the nation.

In response to the TVA proposal, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, and Memphis Community Against Pollution issued the following statements:

“Communities in Memphis already face some of the highest energy burdens in the country. Now, in addition to its recent rate hike, TVA is proposing to spend millions of dollars on a new gas plant that will lead to more added fuel costs and even higher power bills for customers,” KeShaun Pearson, President of Memphis Community Against Pollution said. “Enough is enough. Memphis families shouldn’t be forced to foot the bill for TVA’s fossil fuel spending spree. The utility should instead invest in cheaper energy options, like solar power and energy efficiency programs that meet our energy needs while lowering monthly bills.”

“The Tennessee Valley Authority is once again plowing ahead with plans to build expensive, unreliable, and outdated fossil fuel infrastructure, this time in Memphis. Families across the Tennessee Valley already felt the impacts of the federal utility’s obsession with fossil fuels when TVA’s coal and gas plants failed during last year’s winter storm, causing rolling blackouts throughout the region,” SELC Senior Attorney Amanda Garcia said. “Instead of putting all its eggs in the fossil fuel basket, TVA should invest in more diverse sources of energy — including renewables and energy efficiency — which can lower power bills while creating a more reliable grid.”

“Sierra Club just released a study yesterday that shows TVA has the largest planned gas buildout of any other utility in the nation and is failing in the clean energy transition. Memphis should not have to endure even more pollution and higher electric bills because of TVA’s refusal to seriously incorporate energy efficiency and renewable energy in its planning – planning that is largely hidden from public view,” Amy Kelly, Field Organizing Strategist for the Sierra Club, said.

Memphis Solar And Storage Plan

The whole notion of building new methane gas fired generating plants is hard to understand, given that the TVA is a federal instrumentality and the Biden administration is pushing hard for renewable energy programs that will dramatically reduce US emissions from the power generation sector by the end of this decade. It also makes no sense when one of the largest utilities in America, Xcel Energy, is spearheading the new Smart Electric Power Alliance, a sure sign that some of the biggest hitters in energy generation have gotten the memo about renewable energy and are prepared to act aggressively to implement it.

SELC announced on December 21, 2023 that Memphis Gas Light and Water has now scrapped its proposal to build new methane fired generating plants. Instead, it says it will invest in solar power and battery storage. At a time when utilities across the South, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, are planning to spend billions on fossil fuel plants and pipelines, MLGW’s pivot to clean energy provides a roadmap to the clean energy transition.

“We hope this will inspire other utilities to ditch their dirty gas plants and do what is just, fair, and equitable for our people, our environment, and future generations.” said Keshaun Pearson, the president of Memphis Community Against Pollution. “We are encouraged by MLGW’s decision to pursue a path toward clean energy. We recognize this positive first step in eliminating continued fossil fuel expansion,” Pearson added.

“Communities like ours in southwest Memphis have suffered for decades from the negative effects of pollution, including pollution from TVA’s coal and gas plants. This cycle of harm inflicted by environmental racism cannot continue. We hope this move by MLGW officials will inspire other utilities to ditch their dirty gas plants and do what is just, fair, and equitable for our people, our environment, and future generations.”

Memphis And Social Justice

The decision to invest in solar instead of fossil fuels marks a major victory for a city on the front lines of environmental and climate injustice. Families in Memphis, especially in predominantly Black communities in south Memphis, are overburdened with more than their fair share of industrial pollution. Dozens of highly polluting facilities surround the area, creating decades of ongoing air pollution problems and leading to increased rates of asthma and cancer in those neighborhoods. Additional gas plants would have added to these pollution problems.

SELC says that renewables like solar also provide a more affordable alternative to new gas plants, which rely on unpredictable and expensive fossil fuel costs. This is especially important in Memphis, which has one of the highest energy burdens in the country. Energy burden measures the percentage of a family’s income that goes toward power bills, and in Memphis 94,000 households face a ‘severe’ energy burden of more than 10 percent.

“MLGW’s decisions to scrap its gas plans in favor of renewables should serve as an example for utilities across the region,” Amanda Garcia said. “Now community groups and local utility leaders can focus on finding ways to increase energy efficiency and lower energy burdens on Memphis families instead of fighting over outdated fossil fuel infrastructure proposals.”

Investing in solar power and batteries will create a more reliable grid without emitting dangerous greenhouse gases that worsen the impacts of climate change, SELC says.

The Takeaway

Here is proof that community activism can win the day against last century thinking. The TVA should be ashamed that it actually proposed building new methane gas generating plants that would spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the future for up to 50 years at a time when people are waking up to the reality that fossil fuels cause the planet to get hotter and hotter.

But it’s not a philosophical debate. Renewables cost less. The right wing in America is always whining about letting the free market decide but then when the decision goes against there narrow self interests, they abandon that position pretty damn quickly. What happened in Memphis can happen in every other city in America, helping to control rising energy bills while keeping copious quantities of crude out of the air we breathe. Seems like a no brainer to us.

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