Uh-oh, Congress passed another big government bill that won’t really help financially strapped people. Yes, those are recent headlines, but they could also be applied to today’s #HistoryMonday event as well. Although, the historical event we’ll discuss was much more widely accepted at its inception and even today.
On this day in 1833, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt signs Tennessee Valley Authority Act. This act was a hallmark of New Deal programs. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was a connected effort of public utility companies to be administered by the federal government.
The Tennessee Valley which comprises the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, as well as slivers of North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. These states are all part of the Tennessee River watershed which would provide much needed resources for hydroelectric plants.
Building hydroelectric plants and a utility commission in the South during the Great Depression was a way to assist communities that were suffering even more than other regions of the country. As much of the South was already impoverished before the Great Depression, the financial crisis from the Stock Market and banks only compounded the problems.
While seen as part of Pres. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, the TVA Act was authored by Sen. George Norris (R-NE). Sen. Norris had previously blocked a private utility effort by Henry Ford some 12 years earlier. In hopes of preventing further private utility companies that charged unfair prices for their consumers, Sen. Norris authored the Muscle Shoals bill in 1931, but it was vetoed as being a socialist idea by Pres. Hoover. Pres. Roosevelt was not as opposed to Sen. Norris’s efforts, and had campaigned for public utility commissions to be overseen by the federal government prior to his election.
The TVA was originally headquartered at Muscle Shoals, AL but would eventually move to its present location in Knoxville, TN. A three-member board appointed by the President administered the authority: Harcourt Morgan, Arthur E. Morgan, and David Lilienthal. Under their leadership, Lilienthal became known as Mr. TVA for his efforts to maintain the commission and to be its public face.
During the initial building of the hydroelectric plants, much of the power produced was directed to aluminum factories owned by Alcoa and others. These plants were necessary for the building of airplanes and other weapons for the war effort. By the time the Fontana Dam was built, much of its electric output was used at Oak Ridge, TN for the uranium enrichment process needed as part of the Manhattan Project.
As power demands grew after World War II, the TVA changed to a broader electric utility portfolio. Adding coal power plants became necessary in the 50’s & 60’s and this became their primary electric-producing method. Keeping their costs low and promoting competition, a handful of power plants were built to use nuclear power, but with skepticism of nuclear reactions, this never really became a primary method.
Of course, as concern grew over the environmental impact over coal, the TVA has retired many of those plants in accordance with EPA regulations. They have in the last decade purchased equipment for wind farms. Also, in attempt to be more in touch with the 21st Century, the TVA has also recently added an in-house energy infrastructure cybersecurity panel. This panel oversees social media and IT programs to prevent threats to energy by cyberterrorists.
Many other rural electric cooperatives aspire to have the efficacy and fame of the TVA, but much of those attributes are reserved only in their regions. Private utility companies also exist today and are not always appreciated for their costs to consumers, but government regulations try to keep those prices in check.
The TVA has also been a source for tourism. You can visit many of the sites used by the TVA today and learn more about their construction and their impact in the region. Additionally, museums include artwork form the TVA remembering their contributions.
Media has included the TVA as part of their efforts as well, Ronald Reagan was fired by General Electric for his criticism of the TVA for being a big government program that shouldn’t be celebrated. Given that General Electric used electricity from the TVA, this was a conflict of interest for them. A more recent and less-controversial media appearance features the TVA and their efforts from the Coen brothers 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? The film includes the public utility as a timing foil for the protagonist who has to recover stored treasure before his house is flooded by the TVA.
Have you ever visited a TVA site?