TVA turns 80; history full of controversial progress

6:11 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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Eighty years ago, the stroke of a pen transformed Tennessee and much of the southern United States forever.  On May 18, 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority was officially founded.

Friday morning the leadership at TVA's headquarters in Knoxville hosted a celebration ceremony, albeit one day prior to the actual birthday on May 18. 

WBIR's anchor emeritus Bill Williams served as master of ceremonies, a fitting choice considering Williams has covered TVA for more than four decades.  However, even the most trusted news anchor managed to intentionally mix up the facts of how TVA was born for the sake of comedy.

"This is a legend I'm pretty sure is true," smiled Williams.  "Franklin Delano Roosevelt was here in the Tennessee Valley touring throughout the area. As he was being driven in his convertible in Anderson County, a wasp began to buzz around his head irritating him. Finally he swatted it away towards the river and said, 'dam it!' And they did!"

The joke by Williams received a hefty round of laughter and applause from the TVA audience.  The truth is TVA's birth as part of Roosevelt's "New Deal" was not a laughing matter to many people.  From the beginning, TVA was a child of explosive controversy.  It forced people from their homes and also upset private utility companies by providing extremely inexpensive power.

TVA also managed to tame the raging flood-prone rivers that plagued the Tennessee Valley.  Its hydroelectric dams revolutionized public power and wired a region where only three out of every 100 farms had electricity.

"It was not only affordable energy but reliable energy. When you get up in the morning and turn on your light switch, the lights are going to be on.  They have a 99.999 percent reliability rate," said Mike Arms, a former TVA employee who now serves as executive director of the Association of Tennessee Valley Governments.  "Sometimes TVA is taken for granted.  Which if they are doing a good job and we think they are, they want to be taken for granted."

TVA changed the landscape, but also changed itself through the last eight decades to include nuclear power.   It is also much smaller today.  Arms said TVA is now down to around 12,000 employees compared to more than 50,000 people on the payroll in the 1980s.

TVA's leadership says what has not changed in last 80 years is its mission.

"Our mission is very clear.  That is to serve the people of the valley every day. That's what we're committed to and I hope we're doing it 80 years from today," said Bill Johnson, TVA President and CEO.

As part of its 80th birthday festivities, TVA has launched an online scavenger hunt contest.  Winners will receive a free In-Home Energy Evaluation (IEEE) from TVA and their participating local power company.

Reporter's note:  click here to see more about TVA's plans for the next 80 years from Bill Johnson on WBIR's Newsmaker segment.

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