The Colbert Fossil Plant is one of five coal-fired power plants the Tennessee Valley Authority has closed in recent years, and more will be closed in years ahead.
In an article on its website, TVA attributes the closings to “changing technology, increased environmental regulations and economics,” developments that have forced the utility to shift to cleaner sources of power.
But TVA rightly points out the shuttered powerhouses deserve recognition for the role they played in the development of the Valley — generating electricity, jobs and history.
The growing industrial demand tied to the United States entry into World War II, especially for aluminum, outpaced the amount of electricity the hydroelectric dams could produce. That spawned the push into a new kind of power generation using coal-fired plants.
At its height in 1985, TVA’s coal fleet numbered 12 plants. There were two of those plants in the Shoals area — the Wilson Steam Plant (1919 to 1966) and the Colbert Fossil Plant (1951 to 2016).
The Wilson Steam Plant in Muscle Shoals was built by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide power for two nitrate plants. The War Department transferred ownership from the Corps to TVA in 1933.
The plant was used intermittently during the 1940s and 1950s. The steam plant was retired in 1966 and demolished in 1968.
The Colbert plant was the sixth steam-electric project to be planned, designed and constructed by TVA. Units 1 to 4 were built between 1951 and 1955 with a fifth unit added in 1965.
The decommissioning of TVA’s coal-fired plants has raised many environmental concerns, and that’s true of the Colbert plant as well.
Opponents of the process are right to raise questions about the long-term effects of coal ash impoundments.
TVA has spent to date about $30 million in the restoration of the Colbert Fossil Plant, which includes closing and capping the two ash impoundments on site.
Only time will tell if those efforts will minimize groundwater contamination from the coal ash ponds.
TVA officials said Thursday, Nov. 21, that it will take at least four more years to complete the restoration of the Colbert Fossil Plant. That includes up to two years of removing all hazardous materials, such as asbestos, lead-based paint and PCBs, from the site before starting demolition work on the towering smokestacks.
Once the property is returned to its natural state, TVA will market it for economic development.
The decommissioning process is not a perfect system. But we can be thankful for the stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations of the past decade or so that have forced this level of compliance from TVA, and companies all across the U.S. that are closing their aged coal-fired plants.