A cub reporter is usually an impressionable young pup, and so I was 30-some years ago when I got the assignment to drive up to a central Idaho ranch to interview the brand new U.S. Ambassador to Finland.
Never having met an ambassador to anything, I was impressed by this one. An unassuming cattle rancher with more acres and beef than Tennessee has solar panels (there’s a connection – bear with me), he seemed like, and I’m sure he was, a genuinely nice guy.
He also spoke a little Finnish and had a Finnish wife to go with his Finnish last name, Nyorgard, or some such Scandinavian thing. (It was a long time ago and I never finished Finnish 101.) So I wrote a glowing article about how President Reagan had come up with the perfect man for the job.
My editor was less impressed. He hadn’t met the man, of course, so couldn’t have shared my astute insight into the perfection of the nomination. But he did have something else – the educated cynicism of someone who’d watched political processes for several decades of his own.
“He didn’t get that job because he has a name you can’t spell and speaks a language you can’t speak,” he pointed out. “He got it because he gave beaucoups bucks to the party and bought himself something to do in retirement.”
My exalted view of international diplomacy was dealt a blow. And, for that matter, my optimistic view of who gets what in the world of political appointments. Merit, it turns out, doesn’t have to do with what you know.
So it’s not surprising – but still disappointing – that our Tennessee senators, both Republican, don’t like whom our Democratic president is trying to reappoint to the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors: an expert on energy issues.
Heaven forbid that someone who actually knows something about what TVA does, or should be doing, gets a piece of the leadership action. Dr. Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor and former research administrator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory with a long list of work and research mostly ending in “energy efficiency,” has been re-nominated by President Obama to a term on the TVA board after she’d been vetoed here at home back in January.
How was it that our senior senator, Lamar Alexander, phrased his thinking for the morning papers?
“This is another case of the Obama White House not listening,” his statement stated. “I told the White House… .”
Ah, there’s the crux of the problem. Our senators already rejected the expert, and are pissed the president didn’t bow down to their local authority.
What the senators apparently want is more appointments of rich people who’ve done lots for The Party. And, to be honest, have served in positions of government responsibility on the side. But how they got there too often has less to do with what they knew.
For starters, take a look at the TVA board chair, a prominent Republican friend of Alexander who has run companies and now sits on boards of directors for a living. What he knows about energy and the real utility needs of The Valley might be scratched from beneath Dr. Brown’s fingernails. What he does know about these subjects he learned from the ex-CEO of TVA, who got the utility into its enormous debt problems by resisting the retirement of coal and the promotion of energy efficiency, and by the relentless pursuit of dangerous, expensive nuclear power, contrary to the wishes of ratepayers.
Not that TVA’s current board members can’t bring good judgment to the job. Alongside the beer distributor and requisite lawyers, for instance, sits Dr. Barbara Haskew, whom I knew slightly when she was provost at a local university where I was a lowly professor. I don’t know that we agree on energy policy, but I do appreciate the fact that she put her economics training to good use as head of the TVA rate staff for eight years before being named to the TVA board of directors.
But if Dr. Brown’s case has a lesson, it’s that Sen. Alexander and junior cohort Bob Corker see her nomination as a conspiracy to do something other than what they want. Even more flabbergastory, they claim Dr. Brown is against the TVA mission of “low electricity rates and better jobs in the Tennessee Valley.”
It would be hard to argue that energy efficiency would not help keep electricity rates low because fewer power plants would have to be built, or that legions of today’s unemployed would be better off retrofitting inefficient houses to reduce demand for electricity. So our senators don’t really argue the point. They just state their misguided opinion as fact and move on, expecting the world to fall in line.
Instead of explaining themselves, they just block a nomination that might lead to conservation instead of unwarranted construction. They veto and filibuster and play politics – business as usual in the U.S. Senate, though disappointing from our two senators, who’ve been known to tiptoe into the bipartisan minority in search of the greater good.
Our senator pair is also unanimous in their opposition to the renewable energy future of the 21st century, stuck as they are in the coal past of the 19th century and the nuclear fantasy of the 20th.
Conventional misperceptions aside, the solar systems Sundog Solar is installing today will produce kilowatt-hours averaging $0.10 or so over the next 30 years. TVA rates, given their recent historical and expected future rise of something like 5% annually, will average twice that over the next 30 years.
In 2043, our solar customers will have electricity from their rooftops at one-fourth the prevailing price of $0.40/kWh, which is what TVA electricity will cost in 30 years if it keeps going up 5 percent per year.
But despite what they say, our senators would rather throw roadblocks in the way of the affordable clean energy future – and current employment growth in The Valley. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, adding jobs at a much faster rate than any traditional industry, including the utilities of the past. But not in Tennessee, where graduates of our solar training programs are un- or under-employed.
That’s not all our senators’ fault, of course. The Tennessee legislature still seems fixated on making solar more expensive, not less, since that was the position of the former – Democratic – governor. Far be it from our elected officials to promote the opposition’s policies, even if they were successful.
That’s politics. And that’s how political appointments are made.
And that ends today’s tour of the sausage factory. So spit out that perfect candidate for the TVA board. Our senators obviously know better and deserve our ignorant followership.
(Gary Wolf, a member of the board of directors of the Tennessee Solar Energy Association, is owner/lead installer of Sundog Solar Energy and writes The Sundog Blog.)