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Former TVA board chairman S. David Freeman / Staff Photo by Meghan Brown

Four decades after heading the Tennessee Valley Authority, former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman is joining an environmental group highly critical of the federal agency and is urging TVA's biggest customer to split from America's biggest government utility.

Freeman, a 94-year-old Chattanooga native who has worked as an engineer, attorney and executive for utilities in California, Texas and Tennessee, blasted TVA Wednesday for its current advertising campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Memphis where the city-owned utility is considering a split from TVA.

"In this COVID-19 pandemic, we need this public power entity more than ever, but unfortunately TVA is behaving just like another utility, except they are not regulated," Freeman said. "They are the last monopoly that is not regulated in America and it is heart breaking to watch."

Freeman this week joined the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy as a senior energy advisor and pledged Wednesday to work to help electrify the South while promoting conservation and renewable energy to fight global warming.

"I'm old enough to remember when we would sing the old tune, "The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home,'" Freeman said. " "Solar power is present in the south and it needs to be harnessed."

Despite recent solar farm additions by TVA and its distributors, Freeman and other environmental activists claim TVA isn't doing enough to be a leader in promoting alternative energy and aiding its customers in being more energy efficient. As a result, Freeman and others claim that as wind and solar power has gotten cheaper, Memphis Light Gas and Water (MLGW) and other local power companies might be better off splitting from TVA which has supplied virtually all of the electricity since their creation in the 1930s.

"The way TVA spends money today is so much different than in the past," Freeman said, citing the $8.15 million compensation package given last year to TVA President Jeff Lyash. "In my day, people came to TVA because they were proud to work for an agency that was making a real difference in people's lives and I rode around in a former Vietnam-era helicopter with open doors, not some luxury jet."

Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a frequent critic of the 7-figure pay levels and private jets and helicopters used by TVA executives, said TVA seems more interested in its own preservation than in helping its consumers.

Freeman and Smith contend that MLGW could save hundreds of millions of dollars by splitting with TVA and producing its own cheaper solar power or importing wind power from Oklahoma and Texas.

But TVA has questioned those savings since MLGW would have to build up to $800 million of new transmissions and infrastructure upgrades to replace TVA connections to ensure its gets enough power. Power costs also could rise in the future while TVA is planning on stable rates for the next decade, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said.

Smith claims TVA is trying to use its current advertising campaign to win public support in Memphis to keep MLGW in the TVA fold.

"I do not understand how a federal monopoly can justify spending potentially millions of dollars on public relations television advertising when many of their customers are out of work and struggling to pay the power bills," Smith said. "These slick TV ads are antithetical to TVA's historical mission."

TVA said the advertisements, which were prepared by TVA's own in-house staff to thank first responders and aired across the Valley, cost TVA $85,000.

By comparison, TVA is giving $2 million in matching grants to local power companies to promote local relief programs and TVA has extended $1 billion of credit to its distributors to offer more flexibility in utility bill payments during the current economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

"The ads were designed to reassure the nearly 10 million people we collectively serve that TVA and every Tennessee Valley public power company was standing by them during this difficult time," Hopson said. "Given the twin challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak and the recent tornadoes in our area, we feel it is appropriate for us to recommit our support for the public through the current health crisis and help speed recovery on the other side."

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said TVA has reduced its electricity charges in the past year and cut its carbon emissions by 60% over the past decade and a half. Brooks said TVA's fuel costs are lower than 90 percent of the nation's other power producers and the share of carbon-free power generated by TVA is nearly twice the industry average.

But Smith said electricity bills, which include both the rate and how much electricity is consumed, remain higher than most places in cities like Memphis which has some of the highest per capita use of electricity in the country.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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