Senators blast TVA, nominees in long-delayed confirmation hearing

Staff Photo / The Tennessee Valley Authority building in Chattanooga is shown in 2016.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and a couple of those nominated for its board of directors came under sharp criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle during a confirmation hearing in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate subcommittee conducting a hearing on the TVA appointments, denounced TVA for its relatively limited power generation from wind and solar, which was less than one-fourth of the U.S. average last year. Markey said even in cloudy Massachusetts, 16% of its power now comes from solar and wind generation, compared with only 3% from such sources at TVA.

"It's very, very sad for the Tennessee Valley Authority given the state of technological advancement that TVA has historically prided itself on," Markey said during Wednesday's hearing. "I just don't like TVA falling so far behind the rest of the nation because I grew up thinking that TVA was really state of the art. It's pretty obvious that there is no movement here and it seems like TVA is last in the whole country."

TVA has used its 29 hydroelectric dams and its seven nuclear reactors to get more than 60% of its power from carbon-free sources., which exceeds the carbon reductions of most other utilities. But Markey said the climate crisis requires that TVA do more to both promote energy efficiency and to use more renewable energy sources.

Democrats hope the three new TVA board members named to join the existing five-member board may push the federal utility to do more to limit its carbon footprint. President Joe Biden has called for the electricity industry to be carbon-free by 2035, but TVA expects to be only 80% carbon-free by 2035.

"While TVA has already made some progress toward a clean energy transition, other private utilities have far surpassed TVA's clean energy and energy efficiency commitments," U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement after the hearing. "TVA can and must do more, and it all starts with leadership."

The committee is expected to vote on the TVA nominations in May and Carper said he hopes for a quick confirmation to restore the TVA board to full force.

"In doing so, we will ensure the TVA board of directors does not lose its quorum and provide quality leadership for the board during a critical time," Carper said.

A year ago, Biden nominated four new members for the TVA board, including Beth Geer, chief of staff to former Vice President Al Gore; Michelle Moore, a sustainability team leader in the administration of former President Barack Obama who now heads a nonprofit that promotes solar energy; and Robert "Bobby" Klein, a retired EPB lineman electrician who was a leader in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Biden also nominated Kim Lewis of Huntsville, Alabama, but she later decided to run for the Alabama state senate instead.

Battle over fossil fuels

While Markey chided TVA for not doing enough to promote renewable energy, the two environmental activists nominated for the TVA board who said they want to do more to promote renewable energy also came under fire from GOP lawmakers for previous tweets they had made criticizing the fossil fuel industry and its supporters.

Geer was blasted by U.S Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, for a tweet in 2015 when she posted "hideous" after Ernst's Republican response to the State of the Union address by Obama.

Ernst, a former company commander in Kuwait who is now an army lieutenant colonel for the Iowa Army National Guard and the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate, delivered her address from the Senate Armed Services Committee room wearing camouflage-print heels and stood in front of four military flags. In her speech, she urged support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which she called the "Keystone jobs bill," even though environmentalists like Geer have questioned such investments.

"I'm not sure if you have made it a habit of calling women that you disagree with hideous," Ernst told Geer "but this is not Iowa nice and I'm calling you out."

Geer apologized for the tweet, which she said was not a reflection on Ernst's appearance.

But Ernst said she will oppose Geer's nomination because of the lack of civility in Geer's social media post.

"To call my personal views hideous is an affront to half of America," Ernst said.

Moore was also criticized for her tweet in December 2018 when she likened oil to opiates. "It keeps you sick and poor," Moore said in response to a Wall Street Journal article on OPEC and Russian oil cutbacks to push up prices. On another occasion, Moore said fossil fuels like oil and gas "are not safe at any stage of their life cycle."

"How would you respond to that if you are serving on a board where 40% of [TVA's] power comes from fossil fuels?" asked U.S. Sen. Shelly Capota, R-West Virginia.

Moore said she appreciates the role fossil fuels have played in helping promote economic growth and transportation. For the future, however, she said she sees abundant new sources of cleaner energy and technologies without the problems of mining, shipping, air pollution and waste storage from most fossil fuels.

Appeal for geographic diversity

Capito also voiced the concerns of GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, about the lack of any board seats from their states in TVA's seven-state region.

"Leader McConnell, Sen. Wicker and others are frustrated, as I am, that approximately a year has passed since the president nominated these board members [from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Virginia] but he has still not put forth a nominee from Kentucky or Mississippi," Capito said. "Also, representation from Alabama is now needed because the pending nominee withdrew. Geographic representation is not new, and we know that this is important to get good decision-making."

The TVA Act was revamped in 2005 to replace the former three-member full-time management board with a nine-member part-time policy-setting board. The board members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Although there are no geographic representation requirements for the board members, historically the board has had members from various states across the Tennessee Valley. Capito urged the White House "to finally address these deficits" by filling the three vacant seats on the TVA board with members from Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama.

Despite GOP concerns about the TVA nominations process, environmental groups are supporting the new nominees which they hope will move TVA into a more carbon-free and greener future with more efforts to promote energy conservation and renewable fuels.

Bri Knisley, the Tennessee manager for the nonprofit environmental group Appalachian Voices, said Biden's board appointees "have the potential to advance a just, clean energy transition that benefits workers and builds local wealth in this region.

"A failure to confirm these nominees would be dismissive and incredibly harmful to the 10 million people who are served by TVA and in need of a fully operational TVA board," Knisley said in a statement Wednesday.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.