A week and a half ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced that Bill Johnson would become its next CEO, replacing Tom Kilgore, who had been in charge of the federal energy giant since 2006.
Johnson is the former CEO of North Carolina's Progress Energy. He was ousted when Progress merged with Duke Energy earlier this summer, reportedly just a few hours after the merger was completed (although he still managed to leave with a $44.7 million golden parachute).
Critics of Johnson point to his botched handling of a nuclear reactor upgrade in Florida—Progress Energy's failed attempt to repair the steam generator itself led to even more costly repairs, causing the reactor to remain offline since 2009. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy also pointed out in a press release that Progress Energy had the least savings due to energy efficiency in 2011 of any leading utility in the Southeast and noted that Progress ranked dead last in the latest JD Power and Associates Residential Customer Satisfaction Survey of regional utilities.
"Based on our past experiences with companies under [Johnson's] direction, we have real concerns about whether he will support TVA's efforts to grow energy efficiency and clean renewable energy and if he can work effectively with stakeholders across the valley," says SACE's executive director, Dr. Stephen Smith.
The future energy efficiency of TVA is a big deal. Environmentalist and attorney Brian Paddock, a member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, or SOCM, says that if TVA were to put in place programs to increase energy efficiency by just 1 percent, the agency wouldn't need to have any new power generation at all. According to Paddock's research, TVA could even shut down its coal-powered plant in Gallatin, which in 2009 was named the 17th dirtiest power plant in the county, with no effects at all to the utility's power-hungry customers.
But that's not what's happening. Instead, unless public opposition rapidly changes something, TVA will be moving ahead with its plans to spend up to a billion dollars on retrofitting the almost 60-year-old plant to comply with new EPA emission standards.
"TVA is going to be sending us a bill for a billion dollars to fix up an old plant to get just another 10 to 15 years out of it," Paddock says.
SOCM and other groups have raised concerns over the lack of a public meeting for the draft environmental assessment for the plans for the plant. TVA originally uploaded the 206-page-document with only a 30-day public comment period; after criticism, the agency lengthened the period by two weeks, until Nov. 30.
TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks says the allotted time "is typically sufficient time for public review." But SOCM is asking people to write the agency and request a 90-day comment period, along with at least one public hearing. Brooks says any further extension is unnecessary.
"The folks who are asking for this extension have been involved when we started this process two years ago," Brooks says. "I don't know that we see the logic in extending something that's been a public process all along. This is something that's not a surprise."
Brooks also disputes Paddock's claims that the plant will only last another decade or two. He compares the plant to an old car, which might be old on paper but inside has a new transmission.
"You can keep them going as long as you maintain the parts," Brooks says. When questioned as to whether the body of a 60-year-old car might be, at some point, not worth the expense of putting a new engine in, Brooks disagrees.
"If it's running as well as it was meant to, sure," Brooks says.
Brooks says TVA continues to look at ways to increase energy efficiency, but shutting down the Gallatin plant is not in line with the agency's current Integrated Resource Plan. When asked whether any amount of public comment could actually change TVA's plans to proceed with the construction at Gallatin, Brooks is noncommittal.
"Certainly all the public comment is important," Brooks says.
Paddock is less judicious in his comments.
"They just have this attitude of, we'll decide first and explain later," Paddock says. "This was a decision made by the staff, and the board has not really looked at it. I mean, what they could do with a billion dollars for renewable energy—"
Parties interested in trying to wade through the environmental assessment can do so on TVA's website, at tva.gov/environment/reports. Public comments can be e-mailed, faxed, submitted online, or mailed, but must be received by the Nov. 30 deadline.