Every day skyrocketing utility bills throw millions of families into debt. In the Tennessee Valley, where customers pay some of the highest electricity bills in the nation, that can mean losing electricity altogether.
These struggles will only worsen as the COVID-19 pandemic, rising gas prices and climate-caused extreme weather put even greater strain on our energy system and our pocketbooks. The future looks bleak unless we confront the climate emergency by transitioning to affordable, accessible 100% renewable energy.
So how does the Tennessee Valley Authority, our country’s largest public power provider, respond?
By gutting its energy efficiency programs and stifling renewable energy growth at every turn. By funneling millions in ratepayer funds to anti-environment trade groups, such as the Edison Electric Institute. By trading dirty coal for more toxic fossil-fuel generation, which disproportionately harms low-wealth communities and communities of color.
Without action, TVA’s 10 million ratepayers will continue to get fleeced and our climate will suffer.
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TVA must finally be held accountable for its misuse of ratepayer money and its abuse of the planet. It must stop prioritizing fossil fuel industries at the expense of families and the environment it is obligated to protect.
Earlier this year our organizations, Sowing Justice and the Center for Biological Diversity, along with other allies, sued TVA to force it to stop its practice of using ratepayer funds to help bankroll industry-backed organizations that pose tremendous threats to the climate by fighting clean energy development and environmental protections.
The lawsuit seeks an order forcing the utility to address a 2020 petition, which asks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prevent this kind of misspending.
Since 2001 TVA has paid more than $7 million to the Utility Air Regulatory Group, an industry trade association that opposes Clean Water Act protections, including requirements for safe disposal of coal ash from power plants put in place since TVA’s notorious 2008 Kingston coal ash spill. The spill has led to the deaths of more than 50 workers.
Every year TVA pays about $500,000 in dues to be a member of the Edison Electric Institute, which advocates against environmental safeguards, has fought to roll back state incentives for rooftop solar and has participated in the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to undermine climate science.
How to make electricity more affordable
TVA has asked the court to dismiss the case. Rather than act in the public interest and respond to the petition, TVA wants to absolve itself of any accountability to its customers.
This is an important legal battle that raises a broader question of whether our country’s largest public utility is willing to kick its fossil-fuel addiction, lead by example and help avoid the most catastrophic consequences of the climate emergency.
Instead of financing trade groups that block efforts to address climate change, TVA could be a leader in renewable energy and real climate solutions. Distributed renewable energy, like rooftop and community solar, would reduce demand for centralized TVA power and make electricity more affordable for TVA’s customers.
The utility can certainly afford it. TVA’s net income for the 2021 fiscal year was $1.5 billion. At the last board meeting, the Trump-nominated board approved a whopping 35% raise for CEO Jeff Lyash, who’s already the country’s highest-paid federal employee.
But TVA is dangerously stuck in the fossil-fuel age. The utility generates just 3% of electricity from solar, wind and energy efficiency. It plans to emit more than 34 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2038, according to its own projections. TVA is set to retire less than a quarter of its current coal fleet by 2030, and earlier this year announced plans to expand fossil fuel operations at two dirty gas plants.
It’s critical that TVA return to its pioneering roots and tackle climate and energy justice. That means ending all support for trade associations, like the Edison Electric Institute, that harm our climate, jeopardize our future and prop up a racially unjust energy system.
TVA could lead the way to a 100% clean, renewable energy future. It’s what ratepayers want and what this crisis demands. As it is, this once-progressive utility is leading us, our children and grandchildren into a very dark time.
Marquita Bradshaw is executive director of the Memphis-based Sowing Justice. Gaby Sarri-Tobar is energy justice campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
waterloop #96: Rising Up Against Environmental Racism with Chandra Taylor and Marquita Bradshaw
May 15, 2021
A plan to route an oil pipeline through predominantly black neighborhoods in Memphis is an example of how minority communities across the country are overburdened by pollution and subjected to environmental racism, say Chandra Taylor, Senior Attorney and Leader of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center, and Marquita Bradshaw, Executive Director of Sowing Justice. They discuss how the cumulative impacts of pollution in communities like southwest Memphis must be considered when proposals such as the pipeline arise. Chandra and Marquita explain how to respond to projects that pose pollution and public health threat to a community, including the critical need for grassroots mobilization and exploration of all options at the local, state, and federal levels.
What’s next for Marquita Bradshaw Former Senate candidate establishes Tennessee-focused environmental justice organization
Stephen Elliott February 15, 2021
Marquita Bradshaw pulled off one of 2020’s biggest political upsets when she won the Democratic nomination for retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s seat, besting a well-funded candidate supported by national Democrats while spending less than $25,000.