The days of the can-do TVA workforce are receding into dim memory. They have been called “the Greatest Generation” for surviving the Depression, winning World War II, and setting the stage for the remarkable ascension of America as a world superpower.
They were also the generation that set off into the wilds to build a power grid, built massive dams, did the grueling work of chopping down the trees to create a series of lakes from Cherokee to Pickwick. They built coal-fired plants and brought power to rural Appalachia.
And then today you have dumb asses who stand around and watched while a coal-ash pile reaches dangerous proportions, collapses, and creates a billion-dollar hole in an already strained TVA budget. Not to mention the environmental damage and the damage to the people of Roane County.
But the biggest damage may be to the reputation of TVA as a competent utility capable of meeting the challenges of the energy future. We need a super-efficient agency to build nuclear power plants, to upgrade coal-fired plants to reduce pollution, and to lead the nation in developing alternative energy sources and conservation programs.
What we have is an agency mired in debt—vision and nimbleness have not been in evidence for decades. NASA is another Tennessee Valley super agency: it grew out of the Army Missile Command in Huntsville, and achieved greatness in its early years. NASA also seems to have lost its way. NASA and TVA have evolved into mainstays of the Valley economy and bulwarks of the status quo. But the days when these agencies were pioneers in technology and can-do spirit are gone.
President Obama is putting new members on the TVA board. They represent change. Perhaps they will join with current members to create a board that is no rubber stamp for TVA management. Perhaps they will insist on some attention being paid to “the vision thing.”
Attorney Neil McBride has a history of questioning TVA decision-making and environmental policy going back decades. Barbara Haskew has worked at TVA. Marilyn Brown has experience at ORNL. They bring some expertise to the board that should be helpful. They will not have a steep learning curve and one hopes they will have a clear eye to look at proposals that come before them.
But I don’t know what the agency can do about its debt. Any bold, new initiatives require spending money and capital investment. Most of the debt is from the disastrous and overly ambitious nuclear program during the 1970s. TVA is paying interest on decisions made decades ago. It’s like having a balance on your credit card where you are paying 32 percent interest on a dinner you ate a decade ago.
You can certainly argue that the taxpayers in the rest of the country should not be on the hook for decisions made at TVA. But the ambitious nuclear plant building program was in support of a national energy strategy, somewhat prompted by energy shortages, OPEC embargoes, and escalating energy prices.
TVA could also offer the nation a trade off. In return for relief from TVA debt, the agency could once again become a laboratory and a demonstration project for the country. Who better to encourage and implement new energy technology, giving it a shakedown cruise and then make it available to the nation?
Perhaps there could be some pass-through funds from the federal government to study alternative energy sources. Not just technology, but also delivery systems, direct-to-consumer conservation programs. The TVA energy conservation program was a success. Many of use are still using TVA financed heat pumps.
TVA, and its newly-constituted board, need to find a reason for continuing as a government entity. The justification for TVA was a public yardstick and a demonstration project for the nation in rural electrification.
Either TVA shows the nation why it is unique and has a role to play in our energy future, or we need to start asking why it is there at all. The agency also needs to convince the public that the utility responsible for the Kingston ash spill has the management skills to lead on energy or anything else.