President Joe Biden wasted no time last year trying to put his imprint on America's biggest public power utility.
Less than three months after being sworn into the White House, Biden nominated four new directors for the Tennessee Valley Authority, even before the terms of some of the board members had expired.
But 10 months later, the U.S. Senate has yet to schedule any confirmation hearings on the nominees - the longest delay in congressional consideration of any new presidential appointees to the TVA board since the utility revamped its board structure nearly two decades ago.
The five remaining directors on what is supposed to be a nine-member board will gather Wednesday in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the first in-person full board meeting in two years since the coronavirus pandemic forced TVA to switch its quarterly board meetings online. On Wednesday, board meetings will hear public comments during a listening session, and the board will then meet on Thursday morning to consider its finances and new power options for the future, including consideration of an advanced reactor program and a gas turbine project at its New Johnsonville, Tennessee, plant.
Two TVA directors - A.D. Frazier, of Bluff, Georgia, and Jeff Smith, of Oak Ridge - are nearing the end of their service with their five-year terms scheduled to end in May. They could continue to serve through the balance of the year if no successors are appointed and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But by next January, TVA could lack a quorum on its board to decide major policy directives other than routine operations.
Last April, Biden nominated for the TVA board Beth Geer, the chief of staff for former Vice President Al Gore who now serves on Nashville Mayor John Cooper's sustainability advisory committee; Robert Klein, of Chattanooga, a retired union official with International Brotherhood of Electric Workers; Michelle Moore, of Washington, the founder of Groundswell, a nonprofit that helps community solar projects; and Kimberly Lewis, the CEO of ProjectXYZ and the first Black woman elected as chair of the Huntsville, Alabama, Chamber of Commerce.
After the Senate failed to take up the nominations last year, Biden renominated the four appointees again in January.
Despite the delay in conducting any confirmation hearings on the TVA nominees, Senate Energy and Public Works chair Tom Carper. D-Delaware, said Tuesday he is working with ranking Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, and other senators and members of the Biden administration to schedule a confirmation hearing "as soon as possible to consider all President Biden's nominations to the TVA board," a committee spokesman said. "He is committed to getting these important leadership posts filled," Jake Abbott, press officer for the Senate committee, said in an emailed statement.
Judd Deere, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, said the White House should do more to consult with the Tennessee Valley delegation about its TVA board selections.
"As the Senator who represents TVA's largest footprint, Senator Hagerty has been concerned about this nomination process for some time, including the lack of consultation and engagement from the White House," Deere said in an emailed statement. "He has suggested quality TVA board candidates to the White House and will continue to exercise his constitutional advice-and-consent prerogative."
TVA serves more than 10 million people in parts of seven Southeastern states. As a regional development agency, U.S. senators often are eager to have residents from their own states on the part-time TVA board, which oversees the federal utility and its 10,000-employee staff.
None of the current board members or nominees are from Kentucky or Mississippi, which both previously had TVA board members.
"Traditionally, TVA appointments by the president have not sparked big political battles, but there are certainly turf disputes that have arisen in the past with senators wanting board members from their states," said James Kent Syler, a political operative in Tennessee for more than 30 years who now serves as a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. "In the current divisive political climate, there may also be differences in philosophy."
Biden wants the electric utility industry to be carbon free by 2035, and some environmental groups are pushing TVA to decarbonize all of its power generation by 2030 to fulfill its mission outlined by Franklin Roosevelt to be "a living laboratory" for the power industry. TVA is ahead of most utilities in cutting emissions from fossil fuels but projects it will achieve only about an 80% carbon reduction by 2035.
"The president should be able to appoint board members who are going to carry out his objective of decarbonizing the utility industry," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a Knoxville-based environmental group that wants TVA to be carbon-free within the next decade.
But some GOP senators have urged TVA to maintain its diverse power portfolio and work to keep generation costs and power rates as low as possible to promote economic growth in the region.
The U.S. Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, but 10 of the 14 U.S. senators who represent the seven-state Tennessee Valley are Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, urged TVA in the past not to shut down the Paradise coal plant in his state, but TVA ultimately decided to shutter the last operating unit at Paradise two years ago.
Former President Donald Trump, who sided with McConnell about preserving what he called "beautiful coal," fired two former chairmen of the TVA board in 2020 after the Paradise closing in a dispute over compensation and other issues with TVA.
The five directors on the TVA board, including chair Bill Kilbride, of Chattanooga, were all appointed by President Trump.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.