The TVA or Tennessee Valley Authority was one of the biggest infrastructure projects in US history. Although President Roosevelt had to buck the idea of socialism to get it passed, it dramatically improved the region and ultimately the country. The TVA was and remains a government agency. At the time most electric companies were private enterprises. The TVA was a big change in this area with more cities adopting a municipal-owned system that would later change with deregulation in the 1980s. The TVA made a huge advancement in jobs, reducing poverty and improving life. Most importantly, it shows that can be done with infrastructure when government comes together with great policy.

Hard Years

Before the TVA happened, the whole region was very depressed. Even before the depression, most people did not have electricity and water had to be carried by hand oftentimes. Some people had telephones but no power. The average income was just $2,400 in today’s money. Most people worked in agriculture which was a difficult industry, especially with the unexpected flooding from uncontrolled rivers. The land had been over-farmed causing crop yields to decrease and most of the forests had already been harvested. The area was economically depressed and backwards.

However, that all changed with the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933.

The TVA was created to improve the economy of the area and greatly improve the farms. The TVA dammed rivers to create electricity and control flooding. Modern fertilizers were introduced as well, improving farming. Forests were replanted for long-term sustainability. This, of course, provided thousands of jobs in an already impoverished region.

Although the TVA created some resentment, especially from communities that simply did not trust the government or from the 15,000 families displaced by the damming of rivers and the creation of lakes; ultimately, with local champions, the TVA became quite popular.

Better Life with the TVA

The TVA allowed people to dramatically better their lives by getting electric appliances. Wood stoves were replaced with electric heaters. Stoves became electric as well. It bettered the life of everyone and businesses thrived, not just from the new power but the plentiful jobs that the TVA provided both in construction and maintenance of their hundreds of facilities.

The plentiful and cheap power attracted textile mills to the area who employed local women. However, the TVA did not hire many African-Americans (it was still Tennessee in the 1930s) and women were excluded from construction roles. 9,000 people were employed permanently as part of the development program.

Atomic TVA

The TVA became an important part of the effort for World War II. When they looked for sites to begin building parts of the Manhattan project, the TVA was one of the few places that could supply the needed power to make enriched uranium and other chemicals and materials for the atomic bomb. 3 sites in the country contributed the manpower to make the parts for the experimental bomb. 1 of them was chosen in Tennessee because of the TVA and the ability to provide plentiful electricity. Later, once nuclear power was created in Arco, Idaho, the TVA built some of the first nuclear power plants as well.

The Story of the TVA

TVA Today

Today, the TVA runs a variety of electric generation plants that powers the southeastern United States and contributes to the national grid.

Current Power Generation

  • 6 fossil plants (26 active units) 
  • 3 nuclear plants (7 units)
  • 29 hydro plants (109 units)
  • 1 pumped storage hydroelectric plant (4 units)
  • 9 natural gas combustion turbine gas plants (85 units)
  • 8 natural gas combined cycle gas plants (16 units)
  • 1 diesel generator site (5 units)
  • 15 solar energy sites
  • 1 wind energy site

The TVA was groundbreaking when it was created and continues to move the conversation on energy forward. The Tennessee Valley Authority proves that the government can change lives through infrastructure. It also proves that when there are built things in the world, everyone’s life improves and that privatization, while attractive, isn’t always the answer. There is an effort to private this government corporation, however, the only way we can ensure that projects like TVA continue to work in the public interest is to keep them in public hands where there is accountability.

The TVA also goes to show that having the right infrastructure is crucial to keeping America the great nation that it always has been. America is great because of the things we built during this time and the TVA is a monument to that. If we want to stay competitive, then we need to continue to invest in projects like the TVA. There are no shortage of things to fix in our built environment.