For nearly two years, the regulating body of the Tennessee Valley Authority has been short-staffed with people all nominated by former President Donald Trump.
TVA is overseen by the TVA Board, which is supposed to have nine, president-appointed directors.
The board underwent some turmoil recently, including two firings by Trump in 2020, and it now technically has only three seats filled. Two seats expired last month, but those directors may serve through the end of the year or until those replacements are confirmed.
President Joe Biden tried to fill some of these seats last year. In April 2021, Biden nominated Robert Klein, Michelle Moore and Beth Geer, a local who currently serves on Nashville’s Sustainability Advisory Committee. He nominated one other person who has since dropped out, as it took a full year just to get an initial hearing with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
During the hearing, committee member Sen. Ed Markey said the three nominees are qualified and should be approved swiftly to bring “welcome leadership” to the TVA. Since the Tennessee Valley has many sunny and windy places, Markey suggested it does not make sense that TVA continues to push for fossil fuels while its energy portfolio is only 3% wind and solar.
“It’s almost as though it’s still the 1930s and there hasn’t been any real progress,” Markey said.
Democratic presidents tend to struggle to get board members confirmed quickly, as nominations must be approved by the Senate.
“The entire process has been slow walked, in part, because there is a struggle to get bipartisan support for the TVA nominees,” said Maggie Shober, research director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Some politicians said it was because the nominees were all based in Tennessee, and TVA’s service territory spills into six other states.
The Senate may move on the nominations soon, however. Biden recently nominated Adam Wade White and William Renick Sr., of Kentucky and Mississippi, respectively, so the Senate could vote on all five current nominations at once. That would leave one other seat open.
Why the TVA Board matters
The TVA Board used to be different. Back in 2005, TVA changed its regulatory system to resemble that of a utility like Duke or Dominion.
The board transitioned from full-time to part-time, and they lost control of day-to-day operations.
“TVA was restructured to be more like a private utility, where it has a CEO, the C-suite employees and a regulator,” Shober said.
But the board still plays a key role in the big policy and strategy decisions.
For example, the board voted last fall to give TVA CEO Jeff Lyash autocratic power in the decision on how to replace the Cumberland Fossil Plant in Stewart County.
That power could be reversed, however unlikely, if the board is filled before its November meeting, which is when TVA is expected to present its environmental review on the plant.
‘Knowledge … has not been a prerequisite’
At this time, the board does not have any directors with electricity expertise, which is not a new phenomenon.
“Historically, experience and knowledge of the sector, the electricity sector in particular, has not been a prerequisite to be on the TVA Board,” Shober said.
But that would change with the new nominees.
Additionally, one of the nominees, Robert Klein, is a former lineman who used to be part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
A director with a labor background would be a positive change for a utility that employs about 10,000 people, Shober said.