For President Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal needed innovative solutions if it was to lift the nation out of the depths of the Great Depression. And the TVA was one of his most innovative ideas. Roosevelt asked Congress to create “a corporation clothed with the power of government, but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” On May 18, 1933, Congress passed the TVA Act.
TVA established a unique problem-solving approach. Every issue TVA faced — whether it was power production, navigation, flood control, malaria prevention, reforestation, or erosion control — was studied in relation to the others. From this beginning, TVA has maintained its strategy of integrated solutions, even as the issues changed over the years.
Even by Great Depression standards, the Tennessee Valley was in sad shape in 1933. Much of the land had been farmed too hard for too long, eroding and depleting the soil. Crop yields had fallen along with farm incomes. TVA developed fertilizers, taught farmers how to improve crop yields, and helped replant forests, control forest fires, and improve habitat for wildlife and fish. The most dramatic change in Valley life came from the electricity generated by TVA dams. Electric lights and modern appliances made life easier and farms more productive. Electricity also drew industries into the region, providing desperately needed jobs.
During World War II, the U.S. needed aluminum to build bombs and airplanes, and aluminum plants required electricity. TVA engaged in one of the largest hydropower construction programs ever undertaken in the U.S. Early in 1942, when the effort reached its peak, 12 hydroelectric projects and a steam plant were under construction at the same time, and design and construction employment reached a total of 28,000.
By the end of the war, TVA had completed a 650 mile navigation channel the length of the Tennessee River, and had become the nation’s largest electricity supplier. Even so, the demand for electricity was outstripping TVA’s capacity to produce power from hydroelectric dams. Political interference kept TVA from securing additional federal appropriations to build coal-fired plants, so it sought the authority to issue bonds. Congress passed legislation in 1959 to make the TVA power system self-financing, and from that point on it would pay its own way.
The 1960s were years of unprecedented economic growth in the Tennessee Valley. Farms and forests were in better shape than they had been in generations. Electric rates were among the nations lowest and stayed low as TVA brought larger, more efficient generating units into service. Expecting the Valley’s electric power needs to continue to grow, TVA began building nuclear plants as a new source of economical power.
To become more competitive, TVA began improving efficiency and productivity while cutting costs. By the late 1980s, TVA had stopped the rise in power rates and paved the way for a period of rate stability that would last for the next decade.
TVA’s power mix in 2010 was eleven coal-powered plants, twenty-nine hydroelectric dams, three nuclear power plants (with six operating reactors), nine combustion turbine plants and three gas-fueled combined cycle plants. TVA is one of the largest producers of electricity in the United States and acts as a regional grid reliability coordinator. Fossil fuel plants produced 62% of TVA’s total generation in fiscal year 2005, nuclear power 28%, and hydropower 10%. TVA’s Watts Bar reactor produces tritium as a byproduct for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, which requires tritium for nuclear weapons.
Editor Phil Robertson is an award-wining journalist and graphic designer. With a degree from the University of Florida’s School of Journalism, his career in journalism and publishing spans over 30 years, and includes positions as editor and publisher for several newspapers and magazines. During his career he has received a first-place award for investigative journalism from the Society of Newspaper Editors, and five ADDY awards for advertising design.