A TVA energy plant in Southwest Memphis
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Combined Cycle Plant in southwest Memphis runs turbines that use a combination of natural gas and steam. Environmental organizations across the south are calling on the federally-controlled utility company to explore clean energy more quickly. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

At least 13 environmental organizations, from Memphis to Knoxville to Alabama, have linked up to demand that the Tennessee Valley Authority move faster toward using clean energy.

The Clean Up TVA Coalition, launched last week, called on TVA to cut pollution and switch entirely to solar, wind and other clean energy sources by 2030. The federally-controlled utility sells electricity to utility companies across seven states, including the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

Among the groups in the coalition are the NAACP Memphis Branch and Sowing Justice, a Memphis environmental justice organization. Marquita Bradshaw, executive director of Sowing Justice, said building more plants and pipelines to burn oil, coal and other fossil fuels only stands to make pollution and energy bills heavier on the health and budgets of Memphis’ marginalized communities.

In Memphis, Bradshaw said, low-income residents pay a disproportionate share of their income toward utilities, one study shows.

“People are deciding to pay energy bills rather than getting medicine or putting food on the table,” Bradshaw said.

The utility company is reacting too slowly to climate change, Bradshaw said, and getting in the way of clean energy development. “TVA belongs to us and so it’s up to us to hold them accountable to move in a direction that benefits all of Tennesseeans.”

The organizations came together in response to TVA’s plans to invest in new natural gas-powered plants, according to the groups’ statement. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, primarily made of methane, and contributes to pollution as it’s used.

The move would put TVA’s planned gas investments among the highest for utilities in the country and runs counter to President Joe Biden’s calls for a clean power sector by 2035, the coalition says.

The Sierra Club, an environmental justice group and coalition member, also launched an online tool Wednesday that calculates energy burden, the percentage of a household’s income that goes toward utility bills.

“Your ZIP code shouldn’t be the determining factor in how much you pay for power,” said Sharonda Williams-Tack, associate director of the Sierra Club Energy Justice Campaign, in a statement. “Many people do not understand why their energy bills are so high and why it accounts for such a large part of their budget, but they accept it as a part of their circumstances.”

The coalition’s demands to TVA come amid ongoing debate on whether Memphis should continue buying electricity from TVA or move to another company, as a years-long bidding and evaluation process continues. Some reports have estimated that MLGW customers could save money if the utility bought from someone else.

Marquita Bradshaw speaks at a meeting
Marquita Bradshaw, the executive director of the environmental justice organization Sowing Justice, says that the TVA is a public entity that should be held accountable. She also says that low-income residents pay disproportionate amounts of their income to help fund its existence. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Some money would be saved, Bradshaw added, because clean energy doesn’t come with the cost of cleaning up its pollution like coal, oil and other fossil fuels do.

The leftovers of dirty energy are another reason environmental groups have been pressing TVA as the company begins a years-long relocation of highly toxic coal ash left by its coal plant. TVA got final approval to move the ash from its plant in Southwest Memphis to a landfill in Southeast Memphis, a route lined with Black communities, drawing the ire of environmental justice advocates and Memphis City Council members.

“We just can’t continue to carry that cost of those types of emissions in our air, water and soil because it impacts public health,” Bradshaw said. “Especially in communities like Memphis where you already have a burden of pollution based on the history and legacy of pollution.”

Pearl Walker, co-chair of the NAACP Memphis Branch’s environmental justice committee, said TVA’s refusal to dump the coal ash elsewhere shows a lack of concern for Memphis’ Black communities, which doesn’t help their sales pitch to the city.

“You want us to renew your contract, but you dump coal ash in our city without our permission … We want you to do business with us, but we’re going to dump this shit on you,’” Walker said.  “[They] can’t have it two ways.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com

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