On November 10 of last year, at a place called Paradise in western Kentucky, the Tennessee Valley Authority blew up the cooling towers of a large coal-fired power plant. The three stout towers, each 435 feet high, buckled at the waist in synchrony, then crumpled like crushed soda cans. Within 10 seconds, they’d collapsed into a billowing cloud of dust.
To anyone who watched the demolition happen, or saw the footage online, the message was clear: TVA, a sprawling, federally owned utility created 90 years ago as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, is getting off coal.
Though some people in the region regret that move, it’s a win for the local environment—and for the global climate. In the past few years, as the urgency of slowing climate change has grown, something like a consensus has emerged on how to do it: Green the electrical grid while retooling as much of the economy as possible—cars, buildings, factories—to run on zero-carbon electricity. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Joe Biden last August, is supporting that plan with $370 billion in subsidies. In a 2021 executive order, Biden directed the federal government to “lead by example in order to achieve a carbon pollution–free electricity sector by 2035” and a net-zero economy by 2050.
Given this strategy, electric utilities are crucial to our future—and none more so than TVA, the largest public power provider in the United States. Its territory covers nearly all of Tennessee; large chunks of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky; and bits of three other states. In one of the most conservative regions of the country, 10 million people get electricity from a federal agency that has no shareholders to answer to and no profits to make.
“TVA is this crazy unicorn—it’s not like anything else,” Stephen