Obama's Southern Power Play

President Obama will soon get one of his biggest opportunities to act on climate change, and that opportunity runs right through the South. Three spots on the Board of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation's largest public utility, are becoming vacant. President Obama gets to appoint the people to fill them. It's a rare opportunity to directly determine through presidential power of appointment how quickly America shifts to clean energy.

TVA is a big deal when it comes to electricity production. It serves markets in seven states and produces four percent of America's electricity. While previous administrations have used these appointments as political payback to large southern donors, President Obama has a chance to make real progress by appointing clean energy champions to this important board.

President Obama's opportunity is consistent with the TVA's history and original mission. The area served by TVA had been scarred by generations of over-farming and deforestation.

In 1933, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a solution, and found it in creating the TVA to restore the area's forests and soil while providing low-cost energy. It was one of the ways FDR hoisted the economy out of the Great Depression, and provided a basis for economic growth in the Tennessee Valley that has lasted for generations. TVA has been an enormously successful experiment. It has successfully restored fertility to the region's soils and allowing a healthy economy to take root amongst the region's famous rolling, forested mountains.

81 years later, TVA continues to fulfill its mission by providing affordable power to more than nine million customers across politically conservative southern states.

While the South is not typically recognized for progressive environmental policies, TVA is actually punching well above its weight when it comes to meeting or exceeding President Obama's climate targets. TVA has already reduced climate pollution by more than a fifth from its 1995 peak, and is on track for a 40 percent reduction by 2020. While TVA accounts for only 4 percent of total U.S. electricity generation, the utility has achieved roughly 6.5 percent of total U.S. electricity sector emissions reductions. It has nearly eliminated its use of mountaintop removal coal by no longer purchasing coal mined in Central Appalachia. And TVA operates the only wind farm in the southeast, while expanding its renewable portfolio by increasing solar capacity.

But despite TVA's commendable strides, there is much more to be done. Under its current board, TVA has taken the unbelievable step of restricting the growth of energy efficiency programs. TVA's current pricing model means that it only makes money if it sells more electricity, so it has a disincentive to support more efficient use of energy. That's bad for the environment and an extra economic burden for area businesses and residential electricity users who are needlessly sending extra money to TVA -- dollars they would otherwise be investing in the local economy. TVA has also lagged behind in its solar program by placing an artificial cap on capacity, which has limited growth of clean energy jobs in communities plagued by high unemployment and overseas outsourcing.

By appointing board members committed to his climate and clean energy goals, President Obama can combat pollution, provide electric reliability and allow TVA's service area to be more economically competitive.

Tech companies in particular, pushed by their customers around the world to reduce their environmental footprint, are aggressively seeking to locate in areas that can provide low-carbon or no-carbon electricity. For instance, Apple, Google and Facebook recently announced their commitment to use 100 percent renewable energy in all of their data centers. They are pressuring utilities to provide a broader array of renewable energy sources.

To compete for these kind of high-value jobs, TVA urgently needs to do more. Its continued reliance on coal has meant that its emissions levels are only average amongst the nine major Southeastern utilities.

President Obama has the chance to reshape the region's energy mix with these appointments, without going through the long EPA rule-making process or waiting for the two parties to come to some kind of legislative breakthrough on climate change.

TVA remains uniquely positioned to address the South's major environmental and economic challenges of this generation. With the right leadership on the TVA Board, President Obama can drive the region's clean energy economy and raise the bar for other public and private utilities across the United States.