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Contributed photo by the Tennessee Valley Authority / Jeannette Mills, left, executive vice president of external relations for the Tennessee Valley Authority, appears with TVA President Jeff Lyash

This story was updated Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, at 7:54 p.m. with more information.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has tapped a former Maryland utility manager and regulator who currently serves as an executive for one of the world's biggest electric grids to head TVA's external relations.

Jeannette Mills, who has worked in utility regulation and management for over three decades, was named TVA's newest executive vice president and chief external relations officer. Effective Feb. 3, Mills will join TVA's executive management team and fill the vacancy being created by the retirement Van Wardlaw, who is leaving TVA this month after nearly 40 years.

Mills is a former commissioner of the Maryland Public Service Commission who most recently served as senior vice president of safety, health, environmental and assurance for the U.S. region at National Grid Group, the United Kingdom's largest investor-owned utility. In her new role at TVA, she will lead the federal utility in its efforts to strengthen relationships with local power companies, elected officials, community leaders and economic development agencies in TVA's 7-state service area.

TVA President Jeff Lyash said Mills was selected from among dozens of candidates considered from across the country to help TVA improve its communications and relationships with the communities, customers and elected officials it serves in the Tennessee Valley.

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TVA names new head of external relations of Jeannette Mills / Contributed photo by the Tennessee Valley Authority

"I felt when I came to TVA that we could do a lot better at making sure that we get everyone's interests aligned and that TVA really delivers for its customers," Lyash told the Chattanooga Times Free Press Monday. "I set about trying to find the right person to help us in this effort, not only one who has the right experience and knowledge but someone who has the right character and priorities to do this job in public power."

Since he joined TVA last April, Lyash has added plant open houses, advisory community action groups and more open meetings and hearings on TVA policies and decisions, including its controversial moves on the disposal of coal ash.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he has been impressed by TVA's transparency and public cooperation under Lyash. But other representatives of the Tennessee Congressional caucus, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat of Memphis, and U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, a Republican from Knoxville, continue to push legislation that would require the TVA board to open up its committee meetings to the public for the first time.

"From the beginning I have been in agreement with those who say that TVA should be more transparent, but I don't think that is synonymous with open committee meetings because I don't think that would solve these concerns," Lyash said. "When we engage in matters that impact the people of the valley, we should be inclusive, we should reach out for people's views and we should make it transparent how we are evaluating options."

Lyash said Mills experience as both a utility manager and regulator should serve her well at TVA, which both supplies wholesale power to 154 municipalities and power coops and regulates the rates and financial operations of those local power companies.

Mills, who said she grew up in a a relatively poor area of West Baltimore, studied at the Baltimore Polytechnical Institute where she developed her math and science skills and went on earn her engineering degree at Virginia Tech and her MBA at Loyola University. Mills spent 25 years at Baltimore Gas and Electric, starting as an associate engineer and steadily progressing through positions of increasing responsibility to ultimately serve as the utility's chief customer officer. She later served on the Maryland PSC and nearly three years ago joined the executive team of the National Grid Group in Boston.

"I am so glad to be joining TVA with its rich history of service to the public and I am excited to be a part of this executive team," she said.

Mills joins TVA as the wholesale utility provider is trying to keep its biggest customer, Memphis Light, Gas & Water, in its network. MLGW, which accounts for nearly 10% of TVA's electricity sales with 421,000 customers, is undertaking a long-term power study to determine whether it should continue to buy wholesale power from TVA or try to buy or generate such power on its own or from other wholesale suppliers, including the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).

MLGW, which has been buying all of its electricity from TVA since its creation in 1939 , undertook an analysis of alternative power after getting an offer last year from former Chattanooga developer Franklin Haney to supply Memphis with what Haney projects would be cheaper power from the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant that Haney's Nuclear Development LLC is trying to buy and finish in Alabama.

MLGW determined Haney's initial offer from a single power plant that is not yet built or licensed was too unpredictable. But Memphis continues to study alternatives to buying power from TVA.

Lyash and Mills both said they will work to give Memphis the best information for MLG&W "to make the decision which is best for them," although Lyash said he believes that Memphis will get more reliable power supplies and the benefit of more economic development assistance by staying with TVA and Lyash pledged to work to keep TVA electric rates stable over the next decade.

MLGW must give at least a 5-year notice before it can severe its purchase power agreement with TVA.

"In the end, we hope Memphis will stay with TVA because we think that is in the best interests of everyone, including those in Memphis," Lyash said.

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

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