President Barack Obama’s authority to appoint board members for the Tennessee Valley Authority was probably not on the minds of many Tennessee voters last fall, but it’s one of those presidential powers that now looms large for this region’s energy future. TVA’s board will have four vacancies in May, and two more next year — all subject to Mr. Obama’s appointment power and the elected officials who have his ear. The competency and energy policy views of these pending appointees could dramatically affect TVA’s approach to energy supplies, rates and energy-use patterns in what may well be some benchmark years just ahead for this region and the nation.
One underlying issue concerning the appointees is political. The TVA board, changed from a three-member, full-time governing body to a nine-member part-time oversight entity by an act of Congress in 2005, is now solidly Republican. That likely will change soon, but Tennessee’s two senators, both Republicans, (as are most of the senators in the surrounding six states that also are partially served by TVA) won’t have their usual clout in nominating and steering the appointments.
Higher standards needed
Tennessee’s Democratic congressional delegation, headed by Rep. Bart Gordon of Murfreesboro, will have that responsibility. The delegation’s goal must be to nominate the most competent people available with respect to energy issues and trends, corporate finance and environmental integrity. They must also respect TVA’s charter responsibilities for broad public service, fair treatment for rate payers and resource conservation.
Too many board members the past two decades have sadly failed to measure up to those standards. They allowed TVA to abandon the nation’s premier energy conservation program and chart, instead, a course for ever-higher production and sales of electricity. Now, TVA has to purchase power to meet its peak loads.
Previous boards’ failings
Previous boards also allowed TVA to battle air pollution control standards and the Clean Air Act and move slowly on installing emissions scrubbers, while more responsible utilities moved much faster on cleaning up. And the board has continued to allow TVA to move too slowly into renewable and green energy, and even to charge more for green power while externalizing the environmental cost of unscrubbed air pollution, failing impoundments of coal fly-ash retention ponds, unhealthy hydro-power water reservoirs and river waters, and impermanent storage of nuclear wastes.
Several electric utility issues are certain to draw more scrutiny in Washington in the next four years, and the new board appointees must be prepared to meet these pending challenges. Demand for utilities to use more renewable and alternative forms of energy, for example, is certain to rise.
A troublesome issue on the near horizon is the goal of some in Congress to transform the nation’s independent, utility-owned power grids into the equivalent of an energy super-highway infrastructure for moving electricity around the country. That’s a problematic goal, one in which TVA customers have an enormous equity stake.
The cost and technical hurdles are huge, given the finite load-carrying capacity of interconnected regional utility grids, the perishable character of electricity transferred over hundreds of miles, the assumption of grid maintenance costs, and the problem of peak-hour brown-outs and black-outs from sagging, overloaded lines. TVA must defend its interests and investment in the integrity and cost of its grid.
National advocates, and some in TVA, also want to expand the nuclear industry. Ideas range from more cost-effective standard design packages to nuclear fuel reprocessing, all without regard to the unmet problems of ore extraction and waste-disposal. Board members must understand the stakes.
And there certainly will be a push to make tangible the advertising myth of clean coal and the unproved potential of deep-well carbon sequestration of coal-burning power-plant pollution.
Rising demand, cleaner energy
Even if that effort stalls, TVA and the industry at large will be under the gun to meet rising energy demand with cleaner processes — from reductions in its massive air pollution output to its fly ash disposal. The Kingston ash spill will put a particular leadership burden on TVA.
Given the range of issues sure to be on the agenda, new board members no longer can be just bankers and political cronies. Fortunately, there are several competent appointees at hand.
Able board members
Chattanooga’s Dr. Barbara Haskew, a highly regarded economics professor at MTSU, is a former head of the rate-design division at TVA. She possesses rare insight into the design of rate charges to influence on-peak/off-peak power use for all classes of electricity users, from residential to huge industries. She also understands energy policy trends across the board, and the financial implications of long-term corporate investments.
Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, has been a close observer of TVA energy policies and their environmental impact for decades. He is an astute expert broadly on energy policy.
Jim Hall, a Chattanooga attorney and long-time Democratic political adviser, gained national prominence and deep federal agency expertise in his stint as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board under the Clinton administration.
Nashville attorney Bob Tuke, the Democratic opponent of Sen. Lamar Alexander in the election last November, is a well-informed advocate of sound public and energy policies.
There surely are other qualified candidates, as well, but these four stand out. The task for Tennessee congressional Democrats now is to establish a clear channel to the White House to make sure that the focus is be on competent candidates who understand both TVA’s public mission and its vital role in the agency’s seven-state service region. It’s time the nation’s largest electric utility gets the board leadership it, and its rate payers, deserve.