How a Green Tennessee Valley Authority Could Lead a Green New Deal

A utility established by FDR’s original New Deal could be the key to jump-starting the Green New Deal. As the nation’s largest public utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is in a unique position to provide a big boost to a new, green economy. Currently operating in seven southern states, an expanded coverage area and green initiatives for the TVA may be a key step in revolutionizing the nation’s energy infrastructure. In a recent report by the People’s Policy Project (PPP), founder Matt Bruenig suggests that, “A Green TVA should be one of the government’s primary approaches to increasing the supply of clean energy. Because it is a federally-owned corporation, it can be used directly by the government to achieve energy transition goals.”

History and Coverage area of TVA

In 1933, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an act into law establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally-run electricity supplier. It was part of his New Deal, which created jobs and launched conservation projects that helped bring Americans out of the Great Depression. In the 1950’s, the government restricted the TVA’s service area to just the southern part of the country: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Still, within this relatively limited area, the TVA now provides power to ten million people. Its customers include not just the federal government, but local power companies and industry too.

The TVA was originally tasked with duties above and beyond the generation of power. The utility “helped to make nitrates for fertilizer, and its outreach programs taught farmers the sustainable use of their land.” There were also several projects implemented that led the TVA to build parks, reforest areas, and stock fish. 

A Revamp & Expansion of the TVA

Since the TVA has been completely self-funded for over ten years, it won’t take a massive amount of private investment to initiate change. But, because it’s backed by the federal government, the feds would need to bail out the TVA if its finances ever went south. Compared to the cost – measured in
trillions of dollars – of projected damage caused by climate change, however, the bailout would be a drop in the bucket. What presents more of a challenge is restructuring the way the TVA generates its power.

Currently, the agency generates power from nuclear, coal, natural gas, oil, hydroelectric, diesel, solar, and wind. The biggest percentage of this pie comes from nuclear power, while solar and wind represent just five percent of the power generated. That would need to change if the TVA is going to drive a national green movement. The PPP report proposes that the utility, “rapidly de-carbonize its power generation by replacing their carbon-emitting plants with non-carbon energy production.” That switch would mean 80,000 square miles of the country would be fueled by carbon-free sources.

Bruenig’s PPP proposal expands that 80,000 square miles to to the rest of the nation. Saying that, “because it is a federally-owned corporation, it can be used directly by the government to achieve energy transition goals,” the report suggests the TVA has the potential to expand green energy without relying on subsidies and mandates to “indirectly modify private sector behavior.” By creating inroads to sustainable power, private energy companies would have an easier route to going carbon-free. The new TVA would also increase exposure and demand for clean energy. The TVA itself currently projects that 40% of the power it supplies will be generated by coal and gas in 2027. Under the new structure, that year would be the deadline for decarbonization and zero-emissions instead. Recent TVA plant closures, despite an urging by Donald Trump against the move, only further the case for the move to cleaner and more efficient power generation.  

Jobs, Justice & the New TVA

The New Deal wasn’t perfect. FDR has been criticized, at times, for both pandering to segregationists and displacing both poor and indigenous people in the process of building dams to generate hydroelectricity. Some have suggested though, that these compromises were unfortunately necessary to move New Deal programs forward. In contrast, the Green New Deal puts social justice reform as well as economic and environmental changes at the forefront, aiming to revolutionize the energy economy in ways that are equitable for marginalized populations. With an expansion of the TVA’s service area, would also come new jobs. Additionally, after the old facilities are phased out, employees currently working at the utility’s coal and other fossil fuel plants would be displaced.

The PPP plan would give those workers first crack at jobs in the new, cleaner facilities. That not only takes care of their current workforce, but also creates new jobs in the expanded service area. Much like FDR put Americans to work building dams and reforesting land, the new TVA plan opens up solar and wind energy production opportunities under the new model. Presumably, these newly-created jobs would present less-hazardous working conditions as well. About 15,000 American deaths per year are caused by coal and other coal-related health issues which represent a significant portion of the region’s healthcare costs.

James Bruggers highlights that these potential health and financial hazards abound, like when recently, “A levee that was holding a mountain of sodden ash suddenly broke loose from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant, smothering some 300 acres and spilling into two rivers. Three homes were destroyed and dozens more were damaged.” The resulting lawsuit by 250 workers charged with cleaning up the coal ash mirrors the conditions of 9/11 cleanup workers and will likely fall into the millions. 

By turning the federal government’s existing Tennessee Valley Authority into a cleantech source of energy throughout the country, the effort could mark an important first step toward achieving the Green New Deal’s goals. Since the utility is financially stable, has a demonstrated capability to handle big change, and can pull from its power-providing experience, it’s in an ideal position to prompt change in the private sector as well. The clean power switch would also put more Americans to work, which serves the economy-boosting goals of the GND as well. The next step is getting Congress to approve it.

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