Joe Biden holding a microphone to speak in front of a large American flag.
Joe Biden Credit: Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Gaby Sarri-Tobar. Sarri-Tobar is a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

President Joe Biden recently nominated four new candidates to join the board of the nation’s largest public power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Fresh off the president’s global commitment to slash carbon pollution by 50% by 2030, these nominations could help fulfill Biden’s climate promise by making TVA a model for how public power can lead the clean energy transition.

But it won’t be easy: The new appointees will have to change this federal utility’s culture profoundly.

Recall that the largest industrial spill in our nation’s history spewed from a ruptured dike at TVA’s Kingston plant. More than 7 million tons of hazardous coal sludge poured out during the 2008 incident, leading to a tragic environmental and public health crisis.

That was hardly the first or last time TVA’s use of polluting fossil fuels yielded disturbing results. This federally owned corporation is not just the nation’s largest public power provider — it’s also a mega polluter.

TVA generates just 3% of its electricity from solar and wind. The utility plans to emit more than 34 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2038, according to its own projections.

Like all other utilities, TVA is at a critical juncture. President Biden has called for the entire U.S. electricity sector to be carbon-free by 2035, yet most utilities lack comprehensive plans to achieve zero emissions by 2050, let alone 2035. TVA itself has made no decarbonization pledge. 

Reform is crucial. That’s why we’ve joined grassroots groups from throughout the Tennessee Valley in calling on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Congress to ensure that President Biden’s appointees to the TVA Board of Directors are committed to being the climate and environmental justice leaders this moment demands.

None of the seven current TVA board members are people of color. And none represent labor interests, public health, worker safety or a commitment to environmental justice. Instead, their careers typically boast links to the fossil fuel industry and other big business interests, as well as the Republican Party.

President Biden’s board picks — Beth Geer, Robert Klein, Kimberly Lewis and Michelle Moore — have backgrounds in community-based clean energy, environmental justice and even labor. Those perspectives and expertise have often been missing from TVA’s leadership.

These appointments are a step in the right direction but tackling the climate emergency and building a more just energy system requires much more than promising credentials. 

To effect true change for communities in the Tennessee Valley and build a more resilient energy system, these candidates must firmly commit to setting the utility on a path toward bringing 100% clean and renewable energy to all of TVA’s 10 million customers by 2030.

With TVA’s existing board resistant to renewable energy and reluctant to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, the millions living in the seven states that TVA serves continue to suffer rampant energy injustices

As things stand, TVA is set to retire less than a quarter of its current coal fleet by 2030. The utility recently announced plans to expand fossil fuel operations at two dirty gas plants.

Local power companies have even complained that TVA is blocking them from purchasing cheaper power from other suppliers.

Because of a continued reliance on dirty fuels like coal, hundreds of TVA workers and residents are suffering from life-altering ailments like cancer. The poisonous waste extracted from Tennessee rivers as a result of the Kingston tragedy was disposed of in Uniontown, Alabama — a town that is 90% Black and had absolutely no say in what TVA was bringing into their community.

To protect our climate and prevent a fossil fuel disaster like the Kingston spill from happening again, TVA must close its dirty coal and fracked gas plants. Instead, the utility must invest in genuinely clean and renewable energy like solar and wind, prioritizing distributed energy resources, community-based systems and microgrids.  TVA’s unique public power structure and legacy as an energy pioneer could put it at the forefront of creating lasting change in the Valley and across the country as a model energy system in the face of the climate emergency. To make this a reality, Lewis, Geer, Moore and Klein must pledge to lead TVA’s just and clean energy transition.