TVA criticized on preparations for dealing with climate hazards as Southeast warms

Effects may include increased power demand and decreases in hydro, gas, nuclear generating capacity

By: - February 2, 2023 6:37 pm

Douglas Dam on the French Broad River. (TVA photo)

WASHINGTON – Extreme weather patterns have sparked several improvements to the climate resiliency of Tennessee Valley Authority electrical infrastructure over the past two decades.

However, a report from a government watchdog found the huge utility still has work to do in mitigating climate hazards to the regional power grid.

“TVA has taken several steps to manage climate-related risks,” the Jan. 30 report from the Government Accountability Office said. “However, TVA has not conducted an inventory of assets and operations vulnerable to climate change, or developed a resilience plan that identifies and prioritizes resilience measures to address specific risks.”

One issue: The Southeast has experienced a period of accelerated warming since the 1960s. Among cities in the region, 61% are experiencing worsening heat waves, a percentage greater than anywhere else in the country, according to the GAO.

The report came in response to a five-part joint request for information on the climate resiliency of U.S. infrastructure, from U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper of Delaware. The two Democrats sent their request to the GAO on May 13, 2019.

Their request followed the release of the GAO’s biennial High Risk List in 2019, which found that “neither global efforts to mitigate climate change causes nor regional adaptation efforts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.”

TVA’s “accelerating” climate challenges

The GAO examined the climate resilience of TVA facilities from August 2021 to December 2022 — in other words, the ability to prepare for, recover from and adapt to the effects of climate change.

The report said that increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and more frequent extreme weather events pose a number of risks to TVA’s operations.

“Because TVA is the nation’s largest public power provider, potential climate change effects on TVA’s infrastructure and operations could have significant economic and social consequences,” the GAO said.

The authors said the effects of regional warming may include increased demand for electricity, along with a decrease in capacity for hydroelectric, gas, and nuclear power generation.

Intensifying heat and rainfall patterns can also damage transmission lines, and cause problems for worker health, according to the report.

The GAO also interviewed an unidentified source, who said that tornadoes are increasing in frequency, which could damage transmission lines. An Oak Ridge National Laboratory report found that increasing wildfire risk threatens electrical transmission and distribution systems. Since utilities can be held liable from fires linked to power lines, the TVA could hold serious financial liability, the GAO said.

To punctuate its claims, the GAO referenced a climate-connected series of shutdowns at the TVA’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant near Athens, Alabama. In 2007, 2010, and 2011, the TVA had to shut down the nuclear facility because water temperatures were too high to cool the generator “without significant environmental impact.”

The authors said these challenges may lead the TVA to buy power from other suppliers, hiking rates for their more than 10 million customers across Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Steps towards resilience

The GAO credited the TVA for taking a number of steps in identifying and assessing climate-related risks, including integrating climate-related risk assessment into its strategic planning.

The GAO also pointed out that the TVA has done assessments for the flood resistance of infrastructure near the Tennessee River, and collaborated with both the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory on climate-based river management strategies.

Furthermore, more than $160 million has been spent on moving substations and bolstering flood resistance at the TVA’s nuclear plants since 2009, according to the GAO report.

However, the auditors found that the utility has not conducted a full inventory of “its assets and operations vulnerable to climate change.”

They cite that in TVA’s 2016 Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, TVA officials state that major planning processes for the utility should identify all significant climate risks, which could “significantly impair, obstruct, or prevent agency success.”

But the utility has not assessed broader climate risks in its major projects or assets, like the risk of flooding to its substations.

“This is particularly important as these vulnerabilities become more acute and as new and better climate information becomes available, thereby reducing uncertainty,” the report said

The authors also found that the TVA does not maintain an overarching climate resiliency plan for all of its at-risk operations and assets.

Instead, the utility relies on a series of “resiliency documents,” which include no portfolio of climate-based risks, action steps, or plans for how and when to mitigate those vulnerabilities.

“This (larger climate resiliency plan), in turn, would help TVA fulfill its mission of providing reliable and affordable power to its customers,” the authors said.

TVA responds

The GAO auditors recommended that the TVA conduct a complete inventory and assessment of climate-vulnerable assets and operations, along with developing a periodically updated “resilience plan” with a portfolio of mitigation measures and action plans.

However, the TVA Board of Directors position did not accept or reject the GAO’s recommendations. Instead, the TVA argued that it is already working on most of the actions advised in the federal audit, but that an overarching resilience plan would be impractical for the utility.

The Tennessee Valley Authority faces no legal obligation to act on GAO recommendations.

“The GAO’s recommendations to the TVA for improvement are appreciated,” said Rebecca Tolene, chief sustainability officer at the Tennessee Valley Authority, in a written response included in the GAO report.

“It is important, however, to note that as it relates to these recommendations, that the TVA uses a constant, ongoing risk process to ensure that each TVA major business unit identifies significant climate change risks on an ongoing basis.”

Tolene said that while the TVA does not have one consolidated inventory of climate-vulnerable assets and operations, “we continually evaluate climate-related risk to each area of operations.”

She added that the TVA has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Department of Energy to create an asset-specific risk management system, and a “corporate-level initiative” to monitor climate resilience and associated efforts began at the start of 2022.

With regards to the recommended TVA resilience plan, Tolene said that the TVA issues an annual climate adaptation report, which receives periodic updates.

She added that the TVA has an enterprise risk management division, which conducts annual assessments of risks to each individual branch of the utility.

“This helps to ensure identified risks and risk mitigation actions are properly managed based on a probability and impact assessment,” Tolene said.

GAO skeptical

The TVA officer’s statements on the comprehensiveness of its climate-risk inventory were met with skepticism from the GAO.

“TVA continually evaluates climate-related risks to each area of its operations,” the auditors said. “However, TVA has not assessed the risks that climate change may pose to all major planning processes or assets.

“We continue to believe that our recommendation that TVA conduct an inventory of assets and operations vulnerable to climate change is valid and will help TVA better plan and implement appropriate actions to address climate change vulnerabilities.”

The GAO added that the TVA’s resistance to a climate resilience plan rested on assumptions that the information contained in that plan and the climate adaptation plan would be the same.

“While TVA’s climate adaptation reports highlight certain risks and resilience measures, the reports do not outline a portfolio of resilience measures or identify an action plan that specifies which risks to address, as well as how and when to do so,” the authors said.

“We continue to believe that our recommendation would help TVA identify what options exist to determine whether mitigating certain risks are worth the investment.”

This GAO report follows a larger 2021 audit on the limited climate resilience of the nation’s power grid.

Carper issued a statement to States Newsroom Thursday, crediting the GAO for its work in revealing climate vulnerabilities in the nation’s power grid.

“As our nation’s largest federally-owned utility, TVA should be a leader in transitioning to clean energy and making its electricity grid more resilient,” Carper said.

“Doing so is critical for TVA’s ability to deliver reliable, affordable energy for the more than 10 million Americans it serves well into the future. I look forward to hearing what TVA plans to do differently in response to this report.”

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Adam Goldstein
Adam Goldstein

Adam Goldstein is the D.C. Bureau intern for States Newsroom. Goldstein is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, studying digital reporting. He is originally from San Francisco and loves swimming, cooking and the San Francisco 49ers.

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