TVA's Tom Kilgore on success, regrets, and retirement

5:18 PM, Dec 10, 2012   |    comments
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The man leading TVA is stepping down at the end of the year, and stepping into retirement.

Tom Kilgore became TVA's first president and CEO, after the agency was restructured in 2005.

He recently talked with WBIR Anchor Emeritus Bill Williams about his career with TVA and his plans for the future.

Bill met with Kilgore in the shadow of Norris Dam, TVA's first power producing project. Kilgore remembers how, years ago, TVA turned on the lights in his grandmother's house.

"I was just fascinated that my dad told me one day, 'Well you know I put electricity in that house with my last World War Two check,'" remembered Kilgore.

Kilgore, who grew up in northeast Alabama, remembers that his grandmother used that TVA electricity for three things: lights, radio and an electric iron.

"She loved that electric iron and the radio."

It was a round-a-bout journey, and it took a long time for Kilgore to make his way from his home in Ider, Alabama, to TVA.

"I tell people it took me 40 years to get 40 miles. I grew up about 40 miles from Chattanooga and after living in seven other states I get this call one day that 'we're looking for a CEO at TVA, would you be interested?' 'Well, I might.' And one thing led to another, and here I am."

The Tennessee Valley Authority under the leadership of Tom Kilgore has faced challenges.

In December 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry spilled when a dike ruptured at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres, damaging and destroying nearby homes, and causing an environmental mess.

" One of the things I'm most proud of is how we responded to adversity. The ash spill. Wouldn't want that to happen, didn't want that to happen. But if you knew it beforehand, during and after, I think we've done a good job of cleaning it up."

TVA was again challenged in April 2011, when a massive outbreak of tornados roared through a large part of the TVA service area, leaving 850-thousand customers in the dark. Kilgore says most of those customers had their power back on in six days.

"And then snow storms in Kentucky. People forget that we had some pretty bad snow storms in Kentucky. We always respond, we always get the lights back on. I'm fond of telling people, when you're out of power you don't have to go to Walmart and get it. It'll come to you and we'll be back pretty quickly."

Kilgore told Bill that through all the adversity, he never took his responsibilities as head of the nation's largest public utility lightly.

"It gets complicated from time to time, but if I worried about that a lot I wouldn't get any sleep. But you depend on good people, keep putting one foot in front of the other and we get things done."

Among his accomplishments, Kilgore guided the agency away from dependence on old, polluting coal plants toward more power generation from natural gas, nuclear plants and renewable energy.

He pushed for the restart of one nuclear unit and was able to get TVA board approval to complete two others.

Kilgore is also proud to point out TVA's record in economic and job development in the valley:

"We're not the prime jobber, but we've always helped bring those jobs to the valley, for example Volkswagon and Toyota in Mississippi, and Hemlock in Kentucky."

What would he have done differently as president of TVA? Kilgore says he would have tried to "over communicate."

"You really just need to be out talking to people and communicating with people, reminding them of what's going on, both positive and negative. We're not perfect, we have things we need to be improving, but people are more satisfied if they know, 'oh, they do have that on their mind, and they are doing something about that."

Tom Kilgore and his family have lived in eight states. They have chosen to retire to a small farm in south Knox County, where he hopes to simplify life a little and enjoy his grandchildren.

"I've told people I'll get two horses, and five goats, and six cows, and a couple of honey bee hives, and that's what I'm gonna use to teach my grandkids."

That decision was a simple one.

"If I moved somewhere I've had to get new friends, and a new church and all that. Everyplace we've lived we've kind of said, this is home. We've not tried to look back or look forward, we've just made that our home. So, Knoxville's home."

Tom Kilgore says he will stay somewhat involved in the electric utility industry. He'll also do some fishing, some hunting, and spend time with his grandchildren. He says there are a lot of ways to stay busy.

"I like to contribute at our church, stay involved a little bit with KARM in Knoxville, and things like that. So I'm going to stay involved, not going to disconnect, live this idyllic life. There's always things to do, and people to help."

Tom Kilgore is being replaced by Bill Johnson, former president and CEO of Progress Energy, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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