The chairman of a U.S. Senate panel reviewing board nominations for the Tennessee Valley Authority on Wednesday denounced TVA's commitment to energy efficiency and renewables as "disgusting" and urged the federal utility to change from being a laggard to a leader among Southern utilities using solar, wind and other renewable sources and in promoting energy efficiency for its customers.
"It is deeply discouraging that TVA as the nation's largest public power provider does not intend to achieve net zero carbon emissions until 2050," U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, said during a hearing Wednesday before a subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "On top of that, TVA has adopted rate policies to discourage consumers from using rooftop solar, and instead of replacing its largest coal plant with (a) low-cost zero-carbon energy source, TVA has proposed building a new natural gas plant that it plans to run for years to come. TVA is putting up blockades for clean, cheap carbon-free energy while rolling out the red carpet for polluting facilities that are going to blow through our clean electricity targets."
Markey, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, said his home state of Massachusetts gets nearly one-fourth of its power from the sun and wind -- seven times more power than does TVA.
"If the rainy day Bay State can figure this out, I would just hope that TVA, which serves a sunnier region, would get those same benefits," he said. "Given the reliability, cost savings and climate benefits from renewable energy sources, it is shocking to me that only 3% of TVA's energy is now generated from solar and wind."
Three men President Joe Biden has nominated to serve on the TVA board all voiced support Wednesday for more renewable energy and for promoting more energy efficiency in the Tennessee Valley. Former TVA Chairman Joe Ritch of Alabama, Lyon County Judge Executive Wade White of Kentucky and former Mississippi gubernatorial Chief of Staff William J. Renick all said they would support more renewable energy and efficiency programs where such initiatives make economic sense.
Renick noted that TVA is soliciting proposals for up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free energy and the utility has set a goal of generating or buying 10,000 megawatts of solar power by 2035.
But the ranking Republican on the Senate panel, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, cautioned against abandoning coal and natural gas energy too quickly.
"Calls to eliminate fossil fuels in general from the power sector are foolish and would be devastating for the American people by increasing already sky-high utility bills and jeopardizing the reliability of the electric grid," Inhofe said during Wednesday's hearing.
TVA projects next year it will get about one-fourth of its power from natural gas, which utility officials say is needed to meet power peaks when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. TVA expects to reduce its carbon emissions below its 2005 levels by 70% in 2030 and at least 80% by 2035, according to the current long-range energy plan adopted by the TVA board. But TVA is not expected to meet Biden's goal of a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.
TVA's share of carbon-free energy exceeded most other utilities in the South, but TVA lags behind its neighboring peers in the share of energy it gets from solar, wind and other renewable sources.
To help cover the costs of providing electric service to all customers, TVA charges a base, fixed-rate for all of its customers, regardless of energy use. Environmental activists pushing for more solar power claim TVA's pricing approach limits some of the cost advantages that consumers would otherwise achieve from rooftop solar panels.
The three nominees who appeared before the Senate panel Wednesday all said they are concerned about climate change and want to lessen TVA's carbon footprint, although the board appointees also said they want to make sure TVA maintains reliable and affordable power.
Ritch, White and Renick are among six nominees to the TVA board that Biden has submitted to the Senate over the past year and a half. The three nominees who appeared Wednesday for their confirmation hearings will have until next Wednesday to answer written questions from the Senate, and a Senate confirmation vote could come sometime this fall on the TVA board nominees.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that must recommend the nominees, said he wants "the right leadership" at TVA to support a swift clean energy transition.
"Following today's hearing, my hope is that the committee will soon be able to act on these nominees and recommend them for consideration by the full Senate," Carper said.
The nine-member TVA board currently has only five remaining members, and the terms of two of those ended in May and they will have to leave the TVA board by the end of the year. TVA needs at least five directors to have a quorum.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at @Dflessner1.