The following is a contributed article by Gaby Sarri-Tobar, an energy justice campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
We’re about to see a shake-up at the country’s largest public power provider. Developments could soon spur this New Deal-era utility to break its fossil-fuel dependence and lead the renewable energy transformation.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, with more than 10 million ratepayers in seven states, could see its largest customer jump ship this month. New federal legislation is aimed at breaking down the utility’s tightly held monopoly. And TVA is about to get six new board members.
Will these three developments push the massive utility to finally take on a renewable energy leadership role? Or will TVA make the grave mistake of sticking with its increasingly risky (and pricey) fossil fuel status quo, which is harming ratepayers and the planet?
The TVA board has a suite of tools at its disposal to confront the climate emergency and lead the urgently needed transition to renewable, just and resilient power. The board can create lasting changes for the utility, its customers and our country.
The devastating consequences of our reliance on dirty energy are everywhere.
Climate change-fueled superstorms and heat waves leave trails of death, destruction and power outages. Soaring energy prices are stretching pocketbooks, putting millions in debt and leaving millions more without electricity.
Yet mega-polluting utilities like the Tennessee Valley Authority continue to turn a blind eye. Business as usual, however, is leading TVA down a dangerous path.
This month the board members of Memphis Light, Gas and Water — TVA’s largest customer, with more than 250,000 ratepayers — will vote on whether to leave the federal utility. Memphians have been loud and clear about the problems they’ve faced with TVA, from limited access to renewable energy and astronomical bills to lack of public participation and transparency.
MLGW’s outgoing CEO has recommended signing a 20-year contract to stay with TVA, despite widespread community opposition, but the new CEO has been tight-lipped. The Memphis City Council — which has blasted TVA for a lack of transparency and for mishandling coal ash — has the final vote.
TVA’s board and CEO should take this potential defection seriously. Customers want affordable, renewable energy. They want TVA to put people above profit.
And it’s not just in Memphis. TVA could soon be facing a widespread defection of other local power companies, opening the field to an increasingly renewable future for TVA customers.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis recently introduced a bill to break down TVA’s so-called “fence” and open TVA’s transmission system to entities outside its eight-state footprint. The bill also gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversight of the board’s rate-making authority.
Solar and wind make up a meager 3% of TVA’s generation mix. That’s because TVA restricts local power companies to a 5% cap on self-generation, imposes a grid access charge that discourages customers from embracing rooftop solar projects and makes it easier for corporations — but not customers — to access renewables.
The utility has thrown its weight behind more fossil fuels, despite climate science that demands an immediate phase out of dirty energy. TVA plans to build more than four gigawatts of new gas, the second-largest planned gas buildout among all major utilities.
TVA outranks most utilities when it comes to fossil-fuel expansion. It’s so far from achieving 100% clean energy — a Biden administration mandate — that it earned a failing grade in a recent Sierra Club report.
That could all soon change. When the Senate returns to work in mid-November, it will decide whether to confirm President Biden’s six nominees to the TVA board. The nominees bring a wide range of experience and expertise that could help turn the tide. Refreshingly, they’ve acknowledged human-caused climate change and the need to ramp up renewable energy.
The Center for Biological Diversity has released a roadmap to guide the new board in this important, urgent work.
TVA could lead the way toward achieving Biden’s goal of a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035. A new TVA board can transform this climate laggard into a clean-energy and environmental-justice champion.
Correction: Due to an editorial error, a previous version of this story said the vote by board members of Memphis Light, Gas and Water on whether to leave TVA is happening next month. It is happening in November.