Tennessee and the other TVA states are at the top of the list. No, it is not our educational attainment, economic prosperity or athletic achievement that is setting records. Unfortunately, it is the amount of electricity powering our homes that sets us apart.
Consistently, the states receiving power from the Tennessee Valley Authority consume electricity at the highest residential per capita levels in the country. As a matter of fact, we use about 50% more than the national average. Why are we consuming more kilowatts than others? Perhaps it is because for many decades we benefited from relatively cheap electricity. We assumed that no matter how much we used, TVA would build more power plants to supply our needs.
With today’s energy costs steadily rising, the days of, “use all you want—we’ll make more” are most certainly behind us. It is now increasingly expensive and environmentally challenging to build new electric generation, and Tennesseans must embrace energy conservation as never before to control rising energy bills.
As it is, three-fifths of the power generated in Tennessee comes from coal-fired power plants, and the smoke and ash they produce contribute to environmental problems. Also, when electricity usage is high, TVA and other power companies resort to using expensive gas-fired generation to keep up with the demand. While less environmentally harmful than coal plants, gas generation produces greenhouse gases, and is even more expensive to operate than coal generation.
Of course, for decades TVA and its distributors fed our seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity. Congress chartered TVA in 1933 to sell its power, “at the lowest possible rate and in such a manner as to encourage increased domestic and rural use of electricity.”
The first head of TVA, David E. Lilenthal, knew before he could expand the residential use of electricity, homes needed appliances to consume it. He persuaded President Roosevelt to form the Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA). This federal agency provided low-interest loans to stimulate sales of electric appliances throughout the Tennessee Valley.
A brochure from 1934 proudly proclaimed EHFA was, “interested in a constantly greater use of electricity in all American homes. A fully electrified nation is the goal.” For many years thereafter, TVA continued to encourage higher and higher levels of electricity consumption within our homes and businesses. As a matter of fact, while Tennessee is at the top of the list in residential electricity consumption, it ranks near the bottom for natural gas usage.
Obviously the push for residential use of electricity worked. It wasn’t until the energy crisis
in the late 1970s that conservation first entered our social vocabulary.
Today, TVA’s energy right, Green Power Switch and Generation Partners programs demonstrate how far we have come. These programs are part of the “greener” TVA. This Federal agency wants to help its customers control their ever-increasing demand for electricity, and create renewable generation options to offset the need for additional power plants.
While Green Power Switch encourages customers to purchase renewable power to support green power, Generation Partners works directly with customers who want to build and operate their own renewable generation. TVA will now buy renewable power, such as solar, wind, etc., from its customers to encourage local renewable generation.
However, it is energy right that deserves the most attention. Through energy right, TVA offers home energy audits, financial incentives for making energy efficient upgrades to homes and educational resources for those wanting to become more energy efficient.
We can begin by taking small actions within our homes. Household projects such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, installing high-efficiency windows or adding insulation can add up to big reductions in energy usage over time. We must remember simple steps matter; anytime you turn off unnecessary things that draw electricity you are reducing costs and helping the environment.
The founders of TVA knew the widespread use of low-cost electricity would stimulate economic opportunity within the Tennessee Valley. Their vision, and the labor of countless Tennesseans, helped produce the bounty we enjoy today; however, we must understand our situation has changed. The financial incentives that rewarded an ever-increasing use of electricity are gone. We must focus our efforts on controlling our use of electricity before rising costs do lasting damage to our regional economy.