Workman at an electric phosphate smelting furnace in a Tennessee Valley Authority chemical plant near Muscle Shoals, 1942. (Credit: Alfred T. Palmer/MPI/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The TVA, or Tennessee Valley Authority, was established in 1933 as one of President Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal programs, providing jobs and electricity to the rural Tennessee River Valley—an area that spans seven states in the South. The TVA was envisioned as a federally-owned electric utility and regional economic development agency. It still exists today as the nation’s largest public power provider.

The TVA’s history starts in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town located on the southern bank of the Tennessee River.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized the building of a hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals in 1916. Wilson Dam was to provide power for a munitions plant during World War I, but the war ended before the dam was completed.

Construction on the project languished through the 1920s while Congress debated what to do with the property. Some senators wanted to sell the dam to a private company while others thought the government should retain public control of the property.

Senator George Norris of Nebraska proposed the Muscle Shoals Bill which would allow government use of the dam to produce and sell electricity. President Herbert Hoover vetoed the bill in 1931, insisting that it was the job of private enterprise and not government.

As the country plunged deeper into the Great Depression, however, distrust of private utilities festered. Many believed the utilities charged too much for power. Americans began to support the idea of public ownership of electric utilities.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt incorporated many of the ideas of the Muscle Shoals Bill into the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933. Wilson Dam became the TVA’s first hydroelectric facility.

Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act on May 18, 1933. The TVA Act established the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The TVA is one of the New Deal’s so-called “alphabet agencies” (others include the WPA and the CCC). The initial role of these agencies was to administer FDR’s federal New Deal programs.

The Act tasked the TVA with: improving the navigability of the Tennessee River; providing flood control through reforestation of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley watershed; developing agriculture, commerce and industry in the valley; and operating the hydroelectric Wilson Dam. The TVA covered a seven state area, including parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

In addition to the Wilson Dam, the Act gave TVA the authority to acquire lands along the Tennessee River and any of its tributaries for the construction of future dams, reservoirs, transmission lines or power plants.

Another goal of the Act was to modernize one of the nation’s most impoverished regions. Low energy rates would help to ensure affordable, reliable power for all. The Act encouraged economic development and provided jobs by bringing electricity to rural areas for the first time.

The TVA was controversial from its beginning. Power companies vehemently opposed the TVA, resenting the cheaper energy the TVA provided and saw the agency as a threat to private enterprise.

During the 1930s, several utility companies brought court cases against the TVA, claiming the government’s involvement in the power business was unconstitutional. Wendell Willkie, counsel and later president of Commonwealth and Southern Corporation—a utility holdings company based in Atlanta, Georgia—fought against the TVA before Congress. However, in 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the TVA Act.

New Deal proponents had hoped to use the TVA model to build other public utility and economic development agencies around the country, but these efforts were defeated by Willkie and conservatives in Congress. Willkie ran for president as the Republican nominee in 1940.

Depression-era political cartoonists frequently lampooned the TVA and other New Deal agencies and programs for taking on characteristics of socialism.

FDR’s ambitious plan transformed the Tennessee Valley by creating dams and reservoirs for electricity and flood control, controlling soil erosion through forest restoration and better farming techniques, and improving navigation and commerce along the Tennessee River.

By 1934, more than 9,000 people found employment with the TVA. The agency built 16 hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley between 1933 and 1944.

TVA extension programs taught farmers new techniques that would help to control soil erosion and increase land productivity. Some of those techniques included crop rotation, plowing with the contours of the land to minimize erosion, planting cover crops and the use of phosphate fertilizers.

Many communities were impacted in positive ways by the TVA—by improving living standards and creating jobs. Yet others experienced long-lasting negative impacts.

Some communities were displaced by TVA projects. For instance, roughly 3,500 families in eastern Tennessee lost their homes when the Norris Dam was built. The project flooded an area of roughly 239 square acres in the Norris Basin. The federal government offered little help in resettling displaced families.

Today, TVA is the largest public utility and one of the largest electricity providers in the United States. TVA’s current power portfolio contains: 30 dams or hydroelectric facilities, 8 coal plants, 16 natural gas plants, 3 nuclear plants, 14 solar energy sites and one wind energy site.

TVA in recent years has faced a number of federal lawsuits for their handling and storage of coal ash—a toxic byproduct of coal combustion.

In 2008, a dike rupture at the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry. The spill covered land, inundated houses and flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River. It was the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Great Depression Facts. FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
The Tennessee Valley Authority: Electricity for All. Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University.
TVA at a Glance. Tennessee Valley Authority.
Tennessee Valley Authority. America’s Library; Library of Congress.
Trial over TVA’s storage of coal ash begins. Tennessean.