How Biden Could Use the Tennessee Valley Authority to Address the Climate Crisis

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Lambert: Something for Biden to have taken care of in the first 100 days….

By Nick Cunningham, an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. He has been featured in Oilprice.com, The Fuse, YaleE360 and NACLA. Originally published at DeSmog.

President Biden signed historic climate legislation into law in August, but more action will be necessary to hit climate targets. The Biden administration has a long list of tools at its disposal, spread across multiple federal agencies, that can advance climate action in America even further, argues a 99-page report from the Revolving Door Project. One of those tools includes using the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation’s largest public power utility, as a vehicle to accelerate the clean energy transition. 

“Climate change threatens the basic foundations of society. It is the very definition of a whole-of-government problem, which means every single federal agency should apply its existing powers creatively and aggressively toward the problem,” Revolving Door Project Research Director Max Moran said in a statement. “Alone, these executive branch policies are wildly insufficient to the task of getting America to meet its climate goals. But all of these policies are necessary components of the puzzle, and represent the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of climate action.”

The report analyzes actions and authorities that the Biden administration can take without the need for congressional approval, broken down agency by agency — ranging from the obvious such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE) to the more inventive, including the Department of Justice and TVA. The Washington Post offered an overview of the report’s findings.

A Public Clean Power Utility

One often overlooked area of authority is the federal government’s ability to use the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to pursue clean energy goals. The federally-owned, public power corporation operates power plants in the U.S. Southeast, and has the sixth largest power generation fleet. 

Last year, a coalition of 80 energy justice, racial justice, faith, and youth organizations called on the Biden administration to use the TVA as a “national laboratory to pioneer the country’s renewable and just energy transition,” drawing parallels with the TVA’s success at bringing cheap public power to the rural south during the New Deal era nearly a century ago. 

“TVA has a proud history of serving the nation and people of the Tennessee Valley through ambitious missions around rural electrification, flood control, environmental stewardship, and job creation,” the letter stated. “TVA is well suited to repeat its earlier success as a renewable energy pioneer and by relying on DOE’s remarkable ingenuity and scientific expertise, the utility could lead the country once again towards a just renewable energy transition.”

The concept of using the TVA to speed up the deployment of clean energy is not a new one. As part of his 2020 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) argued for using the TVA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the four federal Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs) — which generate and transmit electricity in 33 states — to build renewable energy. PMAs, like the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest, have their roots in large, federally-backed infrastructure projects from the 20th century and are still owned by the government. 

In its report, the Revolving Door Project argued that the Biden administration has the legal authority to use these federal entities to make a faster pivot to clean energy. 

As the TVA’s aging coal and gas fleet retires, they should be replaced with renewable energy and batteries, advocates say. The problem is the TVA has proposed building two new fossil gas-fired power plants to replace its aging Cumberland and Kingston coal plants, which must retire later this decade. The plan for the Cumberland site, located close to the Tennessee-Kentucky border, received an unusual rebuke this summer from the EPA, which criticized the proposal in public comments, warning that the TVA’s gas assets could become “uneconomic faster than expected” and put climate targets at risk. Next year, the TVA will begin a review of how to replace its Kingston coal plant in Tennessee, where an infamous 2008 coal ash spill occurred. It is considering building new power plants that will burn gas. 

Ongoing cleanup at Kingston plant, site of 2008 coal ash spill. March, 2012. Credit: Appalachian Voices. (CC BY 2.0)

The TVA disputes the notion that it is dragging its feet on decarbonization. “No decisions have been made” on replacing the two coal plants with gas, Scott Brooks, a spokesperson for the TVA, told DeSmog. They are undergoing review, he said. He also noted that the TVA has an 80 percent emissions reduction target by 2035 and argued that gas “gets us to a carbon-free future without sacrificing reliability or raising rates.”

But if the TVA moves forward with replacing coal with gas, it will stifle job growth in the clean energy sector while also posing risks to water supplies, according to Pearl Walker, Civic Engagement Coordinator for Memphis Has The Power, an energy and climate justice campaign in Memphis, Tennessee.

“A continued reliance on coal and gas-fired power plants, which must be operated with millions of gallons of water, will have lasting and harmful consequences for the [Tennessee] Valley’s aquifers and surface water including the Memphis Sand Aquifer,” Walker said in an email to DeSmog, adding that Memphis is the largest community in the U.S. that depends on its drinking water from an underground source. “If our aquifer is compromised it could be like Flint or Jackson,” she said. In late August, historic rainfall overwhelmed an aging water treatment facility in Jackson, Mississippi, leaving the city of 150,000 residents without drinking water. 

With global methane gas prices spiking, building new gas-fired power plants would also create new economic risks. A May 2022 study from Synapse Economics, prepared for the Sierra Club, found that the TVA could save its customers $5.8 billion if it replaced shuttered coal plants with solar, wind, and battery storage. Renewables offered the “least-cost” option – cheaper than building new gas plants – while cutting emissions faster and achieving the same level of grid reliability.

The TVA will issue a final decision later this year.

Cumberland Fossil Plant. March, 2010. Credit: TVA. (CC BY 2.0)

But the Biden administration shouldn’t just wait around, and should instead take a more assertive role by sacking the agency’s current leadership and replacing the board with new members, argues Dorothy Slater, a senior researcher at the Revolving Door Project. In a piece she wrote earlier this year, Slater noted that the president and CEO of the TVA, Jeff Lyash, is a former executive at Duke Energy, a utility responsible for a major coal ash spill in North Carolina.

Lyash has a track record of supporting fossil fuels. He incorrectly blamed the widespread blackouts in Texas in 2021 on the failure of wind power. He also continues to promote the notion that methane gas can be a “bridge” fuel, a refrain that has been echoed by the oil and gas industry and its supporters for years, which critics argue is a cynical strategy to delay a transition off of fossil fuels. And in recent days, he shrugged off concerns from Memphis residents about trucking coal ash through predominantly Black neighborhoods for years to come.

As Slater noted, Lyash gets paid millions of dollars in salary and is not required to publicize personal financial disclosures.

“So, to recap, we have a former fossil fuel executive in an unelected, unaccountable, decision-making position at a public, federally owned utility, who is raking in nearly $10 million per year,” Slater wrote. “His decisions affect the energy costs and supply for over 10 million people and his financial interests are, at the time, a complete mystery to the public.”

The TVA board has only five of nine active members, the minimum required for a quorum. All five were confirmed during the Trump administration. Two are set to see their terms finish by the end of the year. President Biden has nominated six replacements, none of which have been confirmed by the Senate. 

On September 7, a Senate panel as part of the Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) held a hearing on three of the nominees. 

“TVA should be at the forefront of ensuring fair prices for ratepayers, incentivizing energy efficiency, and promoting clean energy generation. I continue to encourage TVA to do more when it comes to supporting a swift clean energy transition, especially on the heels of enacting the historic Inflation Reduction Act. That all starts with having the right leadership,” said Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the EPW Committee.

But advocates want Biden to go even further by firing the current board members as well and replacing them with an entirely new slate — and he has the power to do so. After all, President Trump fired two board members in 2020.

“A new board could, then, choose to fire Lyash and hire a new CEO who might more plausibly have the best interest of the environment and TVA’s customers in mind,” Slater wrote. 

Local activists calling for reforms of the TVA agree. “Moving forward, Biden must stack the TVA board with individuals who acknowledge climate change, support the President’s commitment to securing a clean and sustainable energy future, and are willing to work with municipalities and local utilities to take advantage of the tax credits resulting from the [Inflation Reduction Act],” Walker, with Memphis Has The Power, told DeSmog. “The potential is definitely there with the right board members in place who are committed to clean energy.”

Getting Creative with Executive Climate Action

But TVA aside, there are many other areas where the Biden administration is not using its authority to the maximum, argues the Revolving Door Project report.

The President could declare a climate emergency, halt oil exports, block or curtail drilling on federal lands, and cut off financing of overseas fossil fuel projects, to name a few. Many of those areas would be highly controversial and would potentially push up energy prices, a risk the administration seems reluctant to take on. However, other executive branch actions have the potential for broader backing, such as stepping up enforcement of air and water pollution violations, plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, and deploying renewable energy.

One of the big obstacles standing in the way, however, is inadequate staffing across the federal government. Staffing up agencies is not a quick and easy process, especially since former President Trump took a “sledgehammer” to the capacity at many federal agencies, Aidan Smith, a senior advisor at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, and a coauthor of the report, told DeSmog.

Building capacity is difficult because it often requires “working within the realities of Congress,” Smith said.  

While Biden’s nominees for the TVA board continue waiting months for confirmation from the Senate, one candidate has even dropped out and another candidate nominated in the meantime.

But the TVA is not alone. Many federal agencies have had trouble building capacity and have lost key personnel in recent years. “It cannot be stressed enough how much of a disaster it’s been that for the last few decades even as the climate crisis has intensified, that the staff, especially technologists and scientists, at such crucial agencies – DOE, EPA – how these have remain so utterly unstaffed,” Smith said. 

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

14 comments

  1. Dave in Austin

    TVA produces power and sells it to local utilities. The TVA’s goal was to provide low-cost power for the south. The local people and the utilities that serve them wanted cheap power and since the 1930s TVA has delivered it. Pollution issues have changed since 1935, so high-polluting coal plants are being replaced with lower-polluting- and cheaper- natural gas in both TVA plants and elsewhere in the US. Most initiatives for renewable solar and wind are cheap on the surface but require backup gas turbine plants for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, so they require a subsidy. Renewable power causes bills to go up and the public generally votes for cheap power now over less pollution in the future.

    But because of the federal TVA ownership, advocacy organizations see an opening and are calling for the Biden administration to overrules public preference for cheap power now by mandating renewables. I can argue the case either way, but the administration will not reduce the chances of winning elections in the south to satisfy a vocal constituency from the north and from the coasts. So this article is just a creative PR campaign on the part of advocates who have no chance of changing policy.

    Reply
    1. Carolinian

      As the TVA’s aging coal and gas fleet retires, they should be replaced with renewable energy and batteries

      When I drive through Texas I pass through vast fields of windmills. If there’s a single windmill in the Southeast I don’t know where it is and solar panel installations are rare indeed. The renewable energy resource that the TVA does have access to–hydro–is already in place. So the TVA is going to lead this transition how exactly?

      Reply
      1. Grumpy Engineer

        If there’s a single windmill in the Southeast I don’t know where it is and solar panel installations are rare indeed.

        Yep. Average wind speeds in the Southeast are too low to make widespread deployment of wind turbines viable. About the only place they work well is on mountain ridges where the wind gets channeled, but this tends to draw a lot of public opposition.

        And at least in my corner of Appalachia, the weather is frequently cloudy and unused patches of land are always covered with trees. Clearing a bunch of land in order to erect a bunch of industrial-scale solar farms would involve significant deforestation. One of those “we had to destroy the forest in order to save it” kind of things.

        Reply
        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Here is an article claiming that wind is high and steady enough atop some Appalachian ridges and mountains that wind power would be feasible there. In particular, it attempts to make the case that wind turbines atop certain mountains and ridges slated for mountaintop removal coal mining would produce more jobs and steady income over time than a one-time blast, mine, and leave approach to removing the coal would produce. In most granular particular, this article discusses the issue and the contestants in the Coal River watershed area.
          https://www.switzernetwork.org/switzer-fellow-thought-leadership/wind-versus-mountaintop-removal-coal-mining-west-virginia

          ( I also read recently that some owners of beheaded ant top-flattened mountains have decided that now that the head has been cut off the mountain and the bloody neck stump has been flattened anyway, and now that there are access roads up to the mountain’s bloody neck stump anyway, why not put wind turbines on the flattened top of the bloody stump? Best of both worlds).

          A pro-eco pro-survival leadership at TVA might well decide to ban itself from buying any Appalachian coal of any sort, and support buying Appalachian renewable electricity if there were a way to get the electricity to the TVA grid.

          Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      At the time of its founding, TVA had several goals at the same time. Cheap power was one of those goal. Navigation was another. Flood control was another. Each at the same time. Each balanced against the other.

      Every major dam on the mid and lower reaches of the Tennessee River has locks in it for allowing commercial navigation. Here is a link to a little article about the hydroelectric AND navigational lock capacity at Fort Loudon Dam, for example.
      https://industrialscenery.blogspot.com/2021/04/1943-fort-loudoun-lock-and-dam-on.html

      In its early years TVA even had certain “model farm” and “model agronomy” and other social uplift goals.

      In its later years TVA advanced its cheap power goals to the point of jeopardizing its flood control and possibly navigation goals. It build coal burning power plants fed by strip mined coal from the various upper reaches and headwaters areas of the Tennessee River tributaries, thereby increasing erosion and decreasing storage capacity in its dams. Maybe that aspect of TVA’s recent understanding of its purpose can still be reversed by brute policy force from above.

      ( I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee till I was 15 years old. The Knoxville power company was called the Knoxville Utilities Board. Maybe it still is. At the time, the KUB wanted so badly to encourage the use of electric power that if you had a major electric appliance and it broke, KUB would send someone out to fix it for free-of-charge).

      Maybe a regional movement-load of people in the TVA watershed area can form a Regional Political Party to pursue long-term eco-survival viability of the TVA watershed region. If they could get enough Senators and Representatives elected under the name of their regional eco-survival party ( whatever they want to name it), they may be able to build up a big enough power base to where they can torture and terrorise the FedGov into putting pro-eco-survival people into command of the TVA.

      Biden won’t do it because doing it would change something fundamental, and he promised that nothing fundamental would change. But a TVA-regional eco-survivalist party could gain enough power to torture and terrorise a future President into giving in to making those fundamental changes of personnel. Because “personnel is policy” as any bureaucratic infighter will tell you.

      And that slim hope, of electing regional survivalist political-party-members into offices of power, might be a reason to defeat Trumpist election deniers and election-overthrowers into positions of power to deny and overthrow elections. Because any election-overthrow methods they put into place to use against Democrats today will be used against the TVA Survivalist Party tomorrow. So if the price of having elections which could-in-theory be won by legitimate political parties tomorrow is tolerating Democrats in power today to keep Trumpists out of power today, is that a price which people who rightly feel betrayed by Democrats today are willing to pay today in order to keep hope alive for tomorrow of being able to conquer offices at the ballot box with legitimate political parties tomorrow?

      Reply
      1. Bawb the Revelator

        Despite claims to be “the most Rooseveltian since FDR” it’s still Biden so I’m not looking for any Try Anything attitude. OTOH Yves had this a few weeks back

        :https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/08/an-unjustified-fear-of-nuclear-energy-is-holding-the-industry-back.html

        If Climate Change equals the Depression in 1933 either Biden or Gavin Newsom or another unlikely whiz bang will invoke Mags Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative.” Mags or even The Gipper himself might have or does my optimism delude me again?

        Reply
        1. scary gales

          The operational safety of current nuclear plants may not warrant the fear of many people, though thorium based nuclear plants are inherently safer. You can thank Admiral Rickover’s rush for a nuclear Navy for the default from thorium. But what never seems to be raised as a threat or operational limiting factor is a continuous supply of cool water. Even 30 years ago TVA at times had to reduce nuclear operation at some reactors as the temperature at the reservoir intake valves was excessive. In an era of climate change and rising temperatures you have to anticipate this would be more than an occasional threat to reliable operations for inland reactors. Coastal reactors have a whole different set of concerns.

          Reply
  2. scary gales

    Having worked and retired from TVA I witnessed commencing, with Marvin Runyon, a transition away from TVA as a benchmark for private sector utilities by making a priority of the needs of the Valley region or national leadership. I eventually retired early as I came to see TVA operating as just another utility and as noted in the article, then lead by persons from the private sector with inflated salaries. The fears of being privatized were finessed by pliable Boards and erosion from the inside. Among those first things to go were many of the programs cited in the article which were primarily or entirely funded by appropriations. Mitch McConnell’s influence was significant in the region even in the 90’s. That earlier TVA was far from perfect but I saw leadership during those times which would have been excited to take the lead on all the issues advocated in the article. I recall on one visit to DC, a Board member seeing an empty car left with its engine running, in anger went over and locked all the doors (pre-electronic key fobs). Nothing I see regarding the priorities of TVA today suggest to me a sincere interest in a broader mission or innovation that it once fostered.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      That’s why a Stalinist purge of present personnel and their replacement with pro-eco-personnel would be necessary to solve the problems at TVA.

      Reply
  3. J Huizinga

    Having just read the chapter on the TVA in David Billington’s latest book “From Insight to Innovation”, it’s clear that there is no one in public life today, elected or non-elected, that has the well-being of the public at heart. Even though the three squabbled, Morgan, Morgan and Lilienthal were true public servants.

    This article is just politically correct puff and shows no real knowledge of the utility industry or power generation (“battery storage for renewables”, right).

    Reply
  4. nashville russ

    grumpy engineer completely misses the point – no need for more Land for solar –
    just float the panels on the many tva Lakes like they do in britain and china – costs less anyway – yes joe b should fire the tva board Now ! and how about pumped hydro storage at Every tva dam – cheaper than batteries

    Reply
    1. ocop

      The reservoirs created by those dams are used extensively by locals for recreation. I’m not sure floating solar would survive (physically or politically).

      On pumped storage, in addition to Raccoon Mountain (high head pumped storage with an off-river upper reservoir) , IIRC some of the conventional TVA dams do have some reversible units. However, the environmental impacts (and possibly economics) would favor a new purpose built facility. TVA has the designs for a couple that were shelved after the nuclear debacle of the 1980s

      Reply
      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Could 5 or 10% of the surface of each reservoir be used to float solar panels without impairing recreation on the other 95 or 90% of each reservoir?

        If enough solar electric could be installed to “make a difference” , might a passive form of “pumped storage equivalent” be achieved by not running reservoir water through the turbines when solar electric is making enough power to allow less (or no) water to be run through the turbines when solar power is running?

        I imagine air conditioning is pretty important in TVA country during the hot season. What if the turbines were all run at full power all night so that every homedweller could use that hydroelectricity to cool their houses to the point of being too cold for comfort? They could then let their houses stay cool for a while into the next day on that stored up overnight chill, thereby making possible zero air conditioner use for at least part of the next day, thereby allowing that-much-less electricity to be used for at least part of the next day, thereby allowing for the turbines to be run less or not-at-all for part of the next day while the publicly-tolerated-level of floating solar supplies the power demand?

        And during the “winter” there, much of the home-heating is electric. The solar panels ( if built) could all join the dam turbines helping to overheat the houses all day so that the houses could stay warm through the night on their own daytime-stored heat, thereby allowing the turbines to be run just-that-much less all through the night.

        Just some speculative thoughts. An eco-survivalist TVA leadership might explore or encourage such thoughts, if such a leadership could be forced into place.

        Reply
  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Of course, an eco-survivalist TVA might call a halt to excessive and inappropriate dam-building itself where indicated.

    I remember during my last few years of living in Knoxville about bitter opposition from some quarters to the building of Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River. In the end it got built, creating more bass fishing opportunities in a state with lots of bass fishing opportunities already, and removing from existence a trout fishing opportunity from a state with already a shortage of trout fishing opportunities. Plus other values destroyed by building that dam.

    https://www.tva.com/about-tva/our-history/built-for-the-people/telling-the-story-of-tellico-it-s-complicated

    I remember a little fish called the Snail Darter who lived in that river and was used as a reason to try stopping that dam under Endangered Species Act grounds. The save-the-Little Tennessee River movement was ridiculed for that and the Endangered Species Act itself was weakened with the clever conspiratorial connivance of Senator Howard Baker.

    Several years after the dam was built and all the free flowing river values destroyed, I heard somewhere that a diver named Zygmunt Plater found some snail darters still living in South Chickagauga Creek. My first response was . . . ” How is that possible? How did the snail darter escape? We must dam that creek to kill off the snail darter once and for all!” Of course I have to say that I was thinking sarcastically at the time, because a blogthread is a very poor place to try conveying sarcasm without a sarcasm label.
    https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/esa_works/profile_pages/SnailDarter.html

    Reply

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