(TVA), independent U.S. government corporate agency, created in 1933 by act of Congress; it is responsible for the integrated development of the Tennessee River basin. The history of TVA began in the early 1920s, when Senator George William Norris sponsored a plan to have the government take over and operate Wilson Dam and other installations that had been built by the government for national defense purposes during World War I at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. However, legislation to this effect was vetoed in 1928 and in 1931 by Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. The 1933 TVA Act, redrafted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, went far beyond the earlier proposals and launched the federal government into a vast scheme of regional planning and development—an undertaking that became the model for similar river projects.
The establishment of the TVA marked the first time that an agency was directed to address the total resource development needs of a major region. TVA was instructed to take on the problems presented by devastating floods, badly eroded lands, a deficient economy, and a steady outmigration—all in one unified development effort. The act provided for the integrated development of the whole Tennessee River basin, an area of about 41,000 sq mi (106,200 sq km) that covers parts of seven states. The TVA is governed by a three-person board of directors. The fact that its main offices are located in the region, rather than in Washington, D.C., allows the TVA to maintain a close working relationship with the people of the region.
In 1998 the TVA generated more electricity than any other U.S. utility, supplying 8 million residents. The most noteworthy feature of TVA is the system of multipurpose dams and reservoirs that have contributed greatly to the economic life of the area. There are some 50 dams in the hydroelectric system with an installed capacity in excess of 6 million kW. To meet the growing demand for power over and above the hydroelectric capacity of the system, the TVA began in 1940 to construct steam-generating facilities. By the late 1990s, 62% of the TVA's installed capacity was provided by coal-burning steam plants.
Steadily mounting power demands encouraged TVA to add nuclear power plants in the early 1970s. Design and management flaws and a 1975 accident at Browns Ferry resulted in plant closures and construction delays, but by 1996 three facilties (Watts Bar, Sequoyah, and Browns Ferry) were open and operating.
Electric power from all sources is allocated with a view to promoting the widest possible use of electricity throughout the area—with local municipalities, state and federal agencies, and farmer cooperatives receiving priority over private utility companies and industries. The availability of low-cost electricity has attracted large numbers of businesses and industries to the area, and a 630-mi (1,014-km) navigation channel extending from the mouth of the Tennessee River to Knoxville, Tenn., has been responsible for an enormous increase in river traffic, chiefly in coal, construction material, grain, petroleum, chemicals, and forest products.
Other TVA activities, carried out in cooperation with local authorities, include land conservation; environmental research; tree planting; malaria control; the development of fish, wildlife, and mineral resources; social and educational programs; and the establishment of recreational facilities along the banks of its reservoirs, including the Land Between the Lakes, in W Kentucky and W Tennessee.
Throughout much of the history of the TVA, opponents of the authority have argued that it is too costly and that government should not compete with private enterprise. In 1959, Congress authorized the TVA to issue bonds and notes to be used in financing needed additions to power system capacity. The power system became self-financing and by the early 1990s had paid back more than $2.5 billion into the U.S. Treasury. Congressional funding of the TVA's nonpower programs was phased out in the late 1990s, leaving it totally self-supporting.
By the 1960s many of the regional problems of underdevelopment had been overcome, per capita income had increased dramatically, and rapid outmigration had ended. However, the TVA continues to seek ways to make the largely rural area an attractive alternative to overcrowded cities. In the late 1960s and early 70s the TVA began to place greater emphasis on environmental protection as industrialization and rising living standards resulted in greater demands on the environment. In the conflict between economic and environmental objectives the TVA sought a suitable balance, particularly in its power program. Despite the TVA's environmental protection efforts, the agency has been criticized principally by environmental groups. Controversial issues have involved construction of the Tellico Dam and Reservoir on the Little Tennessee River, the nuclear power program, and the TVA's purchase of pollution credits from Wisconsin Power and Light in 1992.