After Nearly Four Years, TVA Continues to Suppress Meaningful Public Participation
Organizations call for new Board leadership to usher in a renewed commitment to putting the “public” back into public power
Knoxville, TN — During the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Board of Directors meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, August 31, the public will once again not have an opportunity to provide public input. Nearly four years ago, TVA, our nation’s largest public power provider, eliminated in-person public comment sessions at its quarterly Board of Director meetings, which had been in practice for more than 35 years. Our organizations — the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Sowing Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Appalachian Voices, Energy Alabama, and Sunrise Tennessee — join together to call on TVA to return the public comment sessions to the Board meetings.
The change in public input at TVA’s Board of Director meetings came, ironically, after a substantial increase in participation from customers in primarily disadvantaged and historically underfunded communities around the region who were expressing dissatisfaction with TVA. In effect, TVA removed the only meaningful opportunity for its customers to talk directly to its Board of Directors during the board meetings, and instead initiated “public listening sessions” to be held the day before the Board meetings. These so-called “public listening sessions” are typically held during a workday afternoon, making it difficult for customers to attend, and are not live-streamed to allow those unable to attend to listen, including the media. Recordings of the sessions also are not posted online.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, TVA did not allow for any live public comments, even virtually, to its Board either the day before or during Board meetings, even though Board members frequently joined their quarterly meetings via Zoom and other governing bodies around the country were able to facilitate live public comment periods during their meetings. Written comments submitted to the Board have not been made public either. TVA has allowed local power company representatives and corporate representatives to engage TVA Board members directly, but continues to limit direct engagement between members of the public and the Board of the largest public power company in the country.
In addition, typically not all Board members attend the listening sessions. Instead, the sessions are briefly summarized at the next day’s Board meeting, sometimes with inaccurate counts of the number of comments on specific subjects, and none of the comments are read as presented nor discussed or responded to by the Board of Directors during their meeting.
This egregious lack of meaningful public participation and transparency led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Energy Alabama to refuse to participate in these sham “public listening sessions” until TVA once again opens Board meetings to concerned citizens, allowing for public interaction and communication with Board members and leadership. However, TVA’s policy of “public listening sessions” the day before closed-door Board of Director meetings has not changed four years later.
New Leadership Needed with Nominated Board Members
Currently, considering that up to six new Board of Director members are poised to be confirmed by the Senate, it’s a key time for our nation’s largest public power provider to return to more meaningful public participation and transparency. It’s time for TVA to bring public comments back to the Board meetings themselves. This is merely one key step in restoring real public engagement, and public trust, after years of ratcheting back public participation and transparency. As a public power provider, this is the least that TVA should do for the public it is meant to serve.
Dr. Stephen A. Smith, SACE’s Executive Director, said, “TVA has always been a unique federal corporation owned by the people of the United States whose actions have a significant impact on our region. In my 35 years of active engagement with TVA, this is the darkest and lowest point of meaningful public participation I have ever experienced. Sadly, given the profound environmental and social justice challenges of today, less genuine public engagement from TVA is the opposite of what is needed. We call for new Board leadership to sweep away TVA’s resistance to meaningful public participation and usher in a renewed commitment to putting the “public” back into public power.”
Marquita Bradshaw, Sowing Justice Executive Director, said, “TVA does not have an open process for public engagement. Why should someone have to have special connections to have a conversation with them? If you’re not at the highest level of politics, or an executive of a fossil fuel corporation then they aren’t talking to you. It’s also unacceptable that they aren’t revising their portfolio based on new funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. It seems as if they are in lock step with fossil fuel energy, which is the reason why Sowing Justice sued them for making citizens be a part of paying for lobbyists that help keep us locked into fossil fuel energy, which is terrible for public health. Energy is one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions, and can also cause great harm, with coal ash being a great example. We need to move toward a just clean energy transition from polluting energy, to clean, green, renewable energy, which is exactly what the public is demanding.”
Gaby Sarri-Tobar, Energy Justice Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “TVA can’t call itself a public utility when it isn’t listening to the public. Our country’s largest federal utility is behaving like a fiefdom, undermining meaningful public participation and excluding people from critical decisions. Community input is the backbone of energy democracy and true public power, so what is TVA trying to hide? It’s time for new TVA board members who’ll listen to their customers and prioritize transparency, justice, and a transition to renewable energy.”
Isabella Killius, Hub Coordinator of Sunrise Knoxville, said, “Given its status as the largest public power provider in the nation, the Tennessee Valley Authority wields immense potential to transform into a democratic utility that centers the people’s voices. However, this transition hasn’t happened yet, and it is clear that TVA’s ongoing exclusion of the public and commitments to dirty fossil fuels will have devastating consequences for the region. To adequately address the compounding economic and climate crises of our time, TVA must immediately restructure its decision-making processes to allow for sustained public participation. As a young person in the Valley, I hope that TVA can be a key vehicle for energy democracy that my generation — and generations to come — so desperately need.”
Since 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has worked to promote responsible and equitable energy choices to ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at www.cleanenergy.org