Tenn. lawmakers at odds over TVA rate hike

Published 4:05 pm Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tennessee’s congressional members are at odds over how to respond to a 20 percent increase in electricity rates charged by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility.

TVA officials have said skyrocketing fuel costs and a three-year drought reduced the utility’s ability to generate cheap hydroelectric power. TVA approved the rate increase last week — its largest in 30 years.

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn said the U.S. is not developing enough of its own energy supplies and wants Congress to return early from summer recess to address opening up more oil, gas and coal fields.

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“The Democrat no-energy policy is hurting Tennesseans at the gas pump, and now it will hurt them every time they turn on the light switch,” Blackburn said.

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn, said he hopes the cost of gas and oil will push the utility to invest in nuclear power.

“TVA needs to be a leader in developing more nuclear plants,” he said.

The increase is expected to be passed along by TVA 159 distributors to some 8.8 million consumers in Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. The change will raise monthly electric bills between $15.80 and $19.80 beginning Oct. 1 for the average residential customer, based on the use of 1,320 kilowatt hours a month.

Noting that the TVA board was appointed by President Bush and most of the directors are Republicans, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper dismissed partisan criticism and said there is no congressional oversight of the utility or its distributors

“This shouldn’t be about partisanship as much as it is about efficiency and fairness,” Rep. Cooper said. “I don’t have enough information yet to know if TVA is being fully efficient, but I do know that many of TVA’s distributors are not. I would hope that distributors will use some of their excess funds to help hold down these rate increases.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the TVA Congressional Caucus, disagreed and said there has been adequate Congressional oversight.

“I think TVA has a good board and is developing a good strategic plan,” he said.

He said Congress gives regular oversight of the utility through the TVA caucus and through committees, including the Environment and Public Works Committee, of which Alexander is a member.

Alexander said the explosive growth of China is a major factor contributing to the high cost of coal, which supplies about 60 percent of TVA’s generation mix.

“When China becomes a net importer instead of a net exporter of coal, that drives up the price of coal,” he said.

Alexander said the rate hike will strengthen the argument for conservation.

“Obviously, we don’t like to see electric rates go up, but what it suggests to me is that in the Tennessee Valley we’re going to have to focus more on conservation and not waste so much power,” he said.