TVA responds to congressional criticism over costs, pollution

Agency says it outperforms the industry with lower costs and carbon output

Staff Photo / Tennessee Valley Authority President Jeffrey Lyash speaks with the Times Free Press from the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Chattanooga.
Staff Photo / Tennessee Valley Authority President Jeffrey Lyash speaks with the Times Free Press from the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Chattanooga.

The Tennessee Valley Authority on Wednesday reaffirmed its pledge to continue to decarbonize its energy generation and keep its electricity prices below most of the country.

TVA President Jeff Lyash responded to congressional criticism that TVA isn't doing enough to limit its electricity costs and carbon emissions by promising to try to hold the line on future power rate hikes while "rapidly increasing renewable resources on our system" and "actively exploring options to construct new nuclear generation" to replace its aging coal fleet.

In a 16-page letter sent Wednesday to Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and three of its subcommittees, Lyash said TVA "aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and is actively pursuing and researching the technologies needed to get there."

Over the next decade, TVA also has pledged not to raise its base rates for power, which the agency says already are below the residential rates charged by 80% of U.S. utilities and are below the industrial charges by 95% of U.S. utilities. TVA is the nation's biggest public power utility, formed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and its power is used by 10 million people in seven states.

Some in Congress want TVA to do more to limit carbon and greenhouse gas emissions linked with global warming and to promote more energy efficiency to cut not only power rates but monthly power bills for consumers.

Last month, House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Frank Pallone of New Jersey and three Democratic leaders of energy subcommittees - U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush, Diana DeGette and Paul Tonko - asked TVA to do more to both limit its carbon emissions and cut the energy bills for many low-income households in the Tennessee Valley. Although TVA electricity rates are below most in the nation, most homes in the Tennessee Valley have less insulation and are often less energy efficient. With less efficiency in furnaces and home insulation and with lower average household incomes, the energy burden, or the share of household income that must be spent to pay the monthly power bill - is higher in cities like Memphis than in most of the country.

A study by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found that TVA does less than most Southern utilities to promote energy efficiency or to incentivize residential solar or wind power generation.

The Democratic lawmakers said "TVA's business practices are inconsistent" with its broader mission to help limit the costs of energy and protect the environment.

"Specifically, we are concerned that Tennessee Valley residents pay too much for electricity, which particularly impacts low-income households in Tennessee," the House Energy panel leaders said in their letter. "The committee is also concerned that TVA is interfering with the adoption of renewable energy by its commercial and residential customers and, while it is making progress on decarbonization, it must do more this decade."

Studies cited by Congress note that residential customers in Memphis spent as much as 27% of their annual income on energy, one of the highest energy burdens in the nation.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who is urging Memphis Light Gas & Water to consider leaving TVA for another power source, applauded the inquiry "for pointing out the high electricity rates paid by Memphians."

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

Lyash said TVA has paid down its debt by more than $7 billion and cut its annual operating costs by over $800 million to position itself for stable rates over the next decade. Over 60% of TVA's generation comes from nuclear, hydro, wind and solar, which do not emit carbon and are not subject to fuel costs for burning fossil fuel, Lyash said.

TVA said energy efficiency programs have matured to a point that they usually pay for themselves for consumers and TVA is focusing its incentives on aiding low-income neighborhoods that might not otherwise be able to afford making the home energy upgrades to limit power use and bills.

"TVA agrees that climate change is one of the major challenges that our nation and that the world faces today, and it must be responded to with innovation and urgency," Lyash said in a letter to Pallone. "We are executing a plan to reduce carbon by 70% by 2030 and have a path to an 80% reduction by 2035 – without affecting energy costs, reliability, or resiliency."

TVA has contracted for more than 2,300 megawatts of solar generation to come online by 2023 and the utility is planning solar generation and purchases of 10,000 megawatts by 2035.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.