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In Reinvention, TVA Wrestles with Uncertainty

Richard Martin — May 9, 2014

This week’s release of the Third National Climate Assessment – which demonstrates that the effects of climate change today are much more widespread, pervasive, and destructive than previously understood – and the decision by Stanford University to cleanse its endowment of $18 billion in investments in the coal industry have increased the pressure on U.S. utilities to reform their business models, restructure their fuel mixes toward cleaner fuels and away from coal, and embrace the distributed energy model that is gradually replacing the centralized grid.  Nowhere are those pressures more apparent than at the TVA Towers, the Knoxville, Tennessee headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

TVA is being forced to remake itself at a more rapid pace than other utilities, thanks to the settlement of a historic lawsuit filed by the state of North Carolina and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011.  The agreement called for a drastic reduction in TVA’s coal-fired power generation capacity and a variety of clean-up measures at the remaining plants.  In essence, TVA – which is one of the nation’s largest operators of both coal and nuclear plants and is attempting to complete and fire up the second nuclear power reactor at its Watts Bar Plant in central Tennessee – is being shoved out of the business of burning coal.

Time to Go

In fact it is time, according to a new report from the conservative Heritage Foundation, for TVA to go the way of the Works Progress Administration and the Rural Electrification Administration – other New Deal federal agencies created to create jobs, spur economic development, and bring light and power to America in the depths of the Depression – and shut its doors.

Unique among U.S. utilities, TVA is a quasi-federal agency that was created with an explicit socioeconomic mission beyond the business of supplying electricity to its customers: to develop the Tennessee River into a navigable waterway, to bring prosperity to some of America’s least developed regions, and to be a steward of the region’s resources.

“The navigation waterway is built, though lightly used,” writes Ken Glozer, author of the Heritage report.  “Electricity is widely available, though rates are among the highest in the Southeast; and the people of Tennessee enjoy a good standard of living.  The most effective way to restore efficiency to the TVA system and to relieve federal taxpayers of a significant liability is to sell the Authority’s assets in a competitive auction.”

End of the Coal Era

Going fully private is hardly what TVA CEO Bill Johnson had in mind when he told shareholders and audience members at the Authority’s May 8 board meeting in Memphis that the 81-year-old organization is cutting expenses and refashioning its power generation business in order to meet the region’s power demands with rates below the U.S. average, while replacing coal with more renewable sources of power generation and instituting far-reaching conservation and efficiency measures.  TVA has already shut down its John Sevier coal plant near Rogersville, replacing it with a state-of-the-art combined cycle natural gas plant, and plans to shut down several more, including the massive Johnsonville plant, the largest coal plant in its fleet.

Johnson also said that TVA’s debt, which in recent years has edged closer to the $30 billion limit imposed by Congress, is coming down.  Debt reduction, he argues, will help the authority in its plans to open new co-generation plants that would use biomass in combination with coal to produce both heat and steam.  The co-generation project “is a perfect example of how our improved financial condition has put us in a condition to take the steps to do this,” said finance chairman Peter Mahurin at the board meeting.

The steps TVA is taking to remake itself for the 21st century are ambitious and could provide a model for other large utilities – unencumbered by TVA’s ties to the federal government, its complicated history, and its high debt load – to follow.  Whether they’ll be enough to enable the Authority to survive and prosper remains to be seen.

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