KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Spring rains cascade over the lip of the Norris Dam in a torrent of white foam and spray. A hundred yards downriver from this concrete waterfall, people stop at the little park to record the scene on their smart phones or digital cameras. It is an image made for a postcard — a remarkable marriage of nature and technology. And a centerpiece of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Created in 1933 by President Roosevelt, the TVA brought electricity to Appalachia, with the goal that wiring up Tennessee, parts of North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi would help bring prosperity to an impoverished region.
But in his new budget, President Obama ordered a strategic review of the TVA with an eye toward selling it to private interests.
Though the TVA operates solely with income from ratepayers, it has a debt of some $25 billion. While that debt is not backed by the federal government, it is included in the overall federal debt numbers.
By selling the TVA, Obama can give the appearance of immediately erasing $25 billion in red ink from the books.
Or can he?
Some are now questioning whether shedding the TVA would yield the kind of payoff Obama anticipates, while Republican lawmakers in the region remain uncharacteristically protective of this government-sponsored company. And ratepayers worry that if the TVA changes hands, their power costs could go up.
Eighty years after its creation, this “federal corporation” remains popular. It provides electricity to 9 million people through 29 hydro-electric projects, 12 coal plants, three nuclear facilities, 15 natural gas-fired stations and one wind farm. Its rates for electricity are among the lowest in the nation. It is self-sustaining and has not received any federal appropriations since 1959.
Steven Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy questioned whether the federal government would even make much money off the sale.
“If President Obama’s looking for money for the federal treasury, it’s not clear that the assets will actually exceed the debt here,” he said.
In fact, sources inside the TVA estimate its assets are worth between $10 billion and $15 billion. Add to that another $10 billion in other liabilities like pensions and its worth diminishes even more.
“It doesn’t take you very long to peel the onion to see that the money’s not really going to be there,” Smith said.
In addition, the TVA spends about $100 million each year to manage the watershed for flood control, erosion, recreation, fish and wildlife. That’s a cost the federal government would have to pick up if it unloads the TVA to a private entity.
“We fund all these recreational water, stewardship activities out of the low rate we charge today,” said Bill Johnson, the TVA’s CEO. “These would be cost setters that somebody would have to pick up, and I think it would be hard to do more efficiently.”
Rather than erasing federal debt that doesn’t really exist, Obama could actually create more if he sells the power company.
President Eisenhower once thought about privatizing the TVA, famously calling it “creeping socialism”. But there is not a lot of appetite in the TVA service area to sell it. Residents like the reliable, low-cost electricity. And they wonder, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Among them is Mary Jones, who owns the Tic Toc ice cream parlor in picturesque Loudon, Tenn.
“All this equipment, our refrigerators, our freezers here even our milkshake machines and our espresso machine — everything is run by electricity. We need good, economical electricity,” she told Fox News.
She fears that if the TVA is privatized, electricity rates would increase, threatening her business.
“I like it the way it is, thank you,” she told Fox News. “I believe that the president needs to just stay away.”
In a role reversal, many Republican lawmakers — usually champions of privatization — are extremely protective of the TVA. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander told an Appropriations Committee hearing that just the mention of a possible sale caused TVA bonds to drop in value by a half a billion dollars.
“I think that somebody with a green eye shade down there in the Office of Management And Budget just thinks it’s a cool idea to talk about selling the TVA and we don’t appreciate that approach,” he said. “It is an ill-conceived, reckless approach.”
TVA CEO Bill Johnson says it’s not hard to see the political value of his utility.
“You see very reliable economical power. You see that huge recreation and resource management issue — all of which is done without any support from the taxpayers. So, if you live here, it’s really easy and it’s easy for your constituents to see what the benefit is,” he told Fox News.
But the TVA faces challenges in the future. It is in desperate need of about $25 billion in improvements to meet tighter clean air regulations. It will have to mothball some coal plants and modernize others. And it must do it all while not breaking the statutory debt limit Congress imposed on the TVA — $30 billion.
Johnson believes the utility can complete the necessary changes while staying under the debt ceiling by leasing back new plants and equipment.
“Even with the debt cap, the flexibility we have with the alternative financing, I think we’re going to be ok here for at least a decade,” he told Fox News.
Others aren’t so sure. The junior senator from Tennessee, Republican Bob Corker, worries that the TVA is old and mismanaged. He told Fox News that he is open to exploring different ownership of the utility.
“I think it’s losing its competitive edge, and I’d be open to looking at a model that would cause TVA to function at a higher level and be better for taxpayers at the same time,” he said.