It's been just over a month since he's taken over the reins of the Tennessee Valley Authority, but new CEO Jeffrey Lyash already is focused on the future.
He's committed to prioritizing "what is needed in the long run" when making strategic investments and changes to meet the changing environmental and economic landscape, Lyash told the Times Free Press recently. "The public power model in the valley will allow us to think about what is best over time for all of our customers," he said.
The answer to what's best, whether for TVA, its customers, business development, or everyday Tennesseans, is the same: advanced energy.
Advanced energy may be a booming $1.4 trillion global market, but it's intimately linked to the welfare, employment and economic prospects of all Tennesseans.
Our state has exploded as a power player in advanced energy innovation over the last decade, thanks in large part to the unique set of assets that make it a triple-threat: TVA, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and business-friendly regulations and workforce. The sector drives about $39.7 billion to state Gross Domestic Product, the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council found in its 2018 economic impact report. It's growing even more rapidly than the overall state economy, employing close to 360,000 Tennesseans in generally higher-paid positions than the state average annual wage.
In our backyard here in Chattanooga, the advanced energy industry drives more than $1.5 billion in annual payroll to more than 31,142 local workers.
I'm fortunate to count myself among the advanced energy employees, as vice president of Wacker Polysilicon NCA and site manager of the Charleston plant, where we manufacture the polysilicon that forms the base material for solar power panels. Support of advanced energy is critical for international corporations like Wacker — the growing drive for sustainability and access to nontraditional energy sources is becoming a prerequisite in companies' site-selection decision-making process. Wacker just invested an additional $150 million into expanding its $2.5 billion plant in Charleston — but expansions like these and new recruitment of businesses to the state hinge on whether we continue to invest in advanced energy.
But beyond economic and workforce development, investment in advanced energy should be a no-brainer for TVA for a more simple reason: It's the future of energy — whether we embrace it or not.
From a long-term sustainability standpoint, the fact is that resources like fossil fuels are limited and won't last forever. Instead of burning natural gas at large centralized power plants, producing CO2 emissions in the process and wasting the carbon molecules on a single use, we should be preserving these finite resources. Carbon molecules are the building blocks of plastics manufacturing, necessary to make higher-end items such as medical products including replacement heart valves, implants and prosthetics. Prioritizing advanced energy allows us to store fossil fuels such as natural gas, creating an asset that drives the nation's manufacturing economy with the production of advanced materials.
We should all be encouraged by Lyash's words embracing the challenges and opportunities of the energy landscape of the future. That future is advanced energy, and whether Tennessee advances as an economic powerhouse and epicenter of advanced energy innovation, or gets left behind in irrelevancy, is in TVA's hands. If Lyash follows through on his word, then our future is bright.
Mary Beth Hudson is vice president of Wacker Polysilicon in the Americas, site manager of Wacker's Charleston, Tennessee, plant and a board member of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council.