How Biden could turn TVA toward clean energy—an interview with campaign leaders

By William Driscoll

Two leaders of a citizens movement calling on President Biden to transition TVA to clean energy describe their campaign, in this interview.

Biden can appoint six of the nine board members for the federally owned utility by May 2022, to fill vacancies and replace members whose terms expire. These appointments, subject to Senate confirmation, would achieve a board majority.

The new board would then need to engage with TVA’s decision-making, say the two campaign leaders, to reverse the utility’s current plans to invest in 1.5 gigawatts of new gas generation, and transition to clean energy.

Campaign coordinator Brianna Knisley of Appalachian Voices joined Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of Energy Alabama, to talk about the road ahead. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Tell me about your campaign.

Brianna Knisley: The Tennessee Valley energy democracy movement formed out of a listening project in 2019, when we visited 13 communities in the TVA footprint to get a better understanding of what people wanted for their energy future, and how they want their public power system to work. We heard that people want a TVA that is more democratic, with a cleaner power supply, and that treats ratepayers in the valley fairly. TVA needs to have a target for zero emissions, and invest in energy efficiency, distributed generation and community solar.

We also want to see TVA strengthen its commitment to safe high-quality jobs. TVA has some work to do around protecting coal ash cleanup workers, and also ending harmful practices around contracting out good, full-time jobs.

TVA has operated more like a corporate investor-owned utility since 2005, when its board structure changed quite a bit. And we think TVA needs to get back to acting more like a public power provider, and one that is democratically controlled by ratepayers.

For the Tennessee Valley energy democracy movement, we use the term movement because it’s not a formal coalition. We don’t have groups formally signed on to a set of agreements. More than a dozen organizations participate—including Energy Alabama, Appalachian Voices, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, and Tennessee Sunrise—as well as some grassroots and labor-focused groups, and also activists across the region. I serve as a co-convener, along with some other folks.

Q: What is the current TVA board’s stance on renewable energy?

Daniel Tait: Aside from a couple of board members that are relatively new—so we reserve judgment on those particular board members—the rest of the board members basically just defer almost everything to the management. The board has signed off on the destruction of energy efficiency programs, and small-scale renewable programs. The existing TVA board has definitely not shown any indication that it is willing to move aggressively on renewables or climate.

Q: Have you seen any signs that President Biden intends to appoint TVA board members who favor clean energy?

Daniel Tait: To meet the scale of the challenge we face as a nation, around the energy transition, really will take the Biden Administration being a little bit more aggressive than administrations have been in the past, including the Obama Administration, to be frank, about making sure that TVA’s board members are prioritized. So far, we haven’t really seen that out of the Biden Administration. We’d like to see more thought and aggressiveness in terms of the timeline from the Administration. This is a really important issue, with 1.5 gigawatts of new gas proposed from TVA, which is clearly in conflict with the Biden Administration’s executive order on net zero carbon emissions by 2035. You know, we need to act now. Having a TVA board that is willing and technically able to hold TVA management accountable is something we haven’t had. And we desperately will need new board members.

Brianna Knisley: The other priority we have is that we need TVA board members who come from environmental justice and racial justice backgrounds, who can represent labor interests, and unions that work at TVA. And, of course we need folks who can work towards climate justice as well. Historically the board has been mostly white; you see a lot of big business executives and folks that represent Chambers of Commerce. And, you know, we want to see folks with energy backgrounds and energy worker experience on the board as well.

Q: Can you say a bit more about TVA’s plans for new fossil or renewable generation?

Daniel Tait: Since Biden was sworn in, TVA has proposed nothing but new fossil fuel generation, which is not just the antithesis of the executive order, but also is a really bad economic, environmental, and social choice. It comes off as a kind of a direct challenge to the administration. They have a proposal out right now, for two 750-megawatt gas peaking plants, one in Kentucky, one in Alabama, for 1.5 gigawatts total.

This was particularly egregious, from my standpoint as a previous member of the committee that advised on TVA’s long-range resource plan, because when we went through that process, there was one run of the model where we said, let’s take off the restrictions on energy efficiency and demand response and see what happens. And lo and behold, when TVA’s model had those restrictions taken off, the model selected a lot more energy efficiency, which displaced gas. So that was pretty eye opening, that energy efficiency and demand response were the most cost-effective ways to make sure that TVA did not keep doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure. And it’s also good for consumers in terms of lowering their bills.

Brianna Knisley: TVA also intends to prepare an environmental impact statement for advanced nuclear reactors in Oak Ridge, totaling up to 800 megawatts. They’re actually proposing a park that would contain one or more nuclear reactors.

Q: What about TVA’s announcement that it plans to add “up to 10 gigawatts” of solar power by 2040, and its resource plans generally?

Daniel Tait: Oh, absolutely. “Up to” is the operative phrase. They have been using that as a qualifier for some time, but they don’t have any concrete plans actually develop that much. We haven’t seen any board materials or budget materials showing that they’re actually putting their money where their mouth is on that stuff, but just kind of putting it in press releases. They have shuttered a few coal plants down in the last few years, but they still have a few running. Of course, now they’re trying to replace some older gas with new gas. So you know, it could make them cleaner, you know, but will it get them close to 100%? No.

In terms of what a clean energy grid looks like, for generating capacity and storage, frankly, we don’t really know the answer to that. The upcoming integrated resource plan will have to model some scenarios of net zero by 2050, at the absolute latest, and it will need to have other benchmarks like 80% by 2030, or 100% by 2035—different types of benchmarks like that to see what TVA’s grid would look like under those types of scenarios.

In Alabama, where I live, Alabama Power doesn’t even file an integrated resource plan; it just files a two-page summary and then hides all the rest. So, by comparison, TVA, which actually has an open process, looks pretty dang good. That said, as a previous member of the resource plan committee, I can say there’s a lot of power that TVA wields over the working group.

I think would be instructive to see what an independent third party could come up with, and you’re starting to see some other intervenors—like with Duke Energy in North Carolina—some of the intervenors ran their own integrated resource plan, and submitted that as part of their testimony in that docket, and it’s very different from what Duke is proposing. Something like that could be instructive here for TVA.

Q: What does the interest of Memphis in exiting TVA indicate about the potential for lower cost renewable generation in the TVA region?

Daniel Tait: It’s complex, but TVA’s high wholesale power costs are driven by lots of debt that it’s carrying from failed nuclear investments in the ‘70s and ‘80s, coal plants that it refuses to shutter, and historic under-investment in energy efficiency and demand response. These bad decisions and under-investment have driven the wholesale power cost to uncompetitive levels compared to many of its neighbors.

You’ve probably seen the studies that show hundreds of million dollars could be saved by the Memphis municipal utility, by leaving the TVA. It says there’s a lot of opportunity, right? TVA could put downward pressure on the wholesale power rate by doing a lot of things I just mentioned. Not only could it save that kind of money for Memphis, but all of the rest of the local power companies in the valley could also then get massive amounts of savings too—probably billions of dollars in savings. Brianna Knisley: We all just want to see TVA live up to the ideals that were espoused in the original TVA Act, and become the living lab that we all think it should be. TVA could be a model for how utilities can transition rapidly towards clean energy in a way that is equitable, and supports workers. TVA could definitely do that with the support of the federal government. There’s just a widespread disappointment that TVA has been resisting that transition for unknown reasons. TVA has the ability to do it.

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