By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The move by Tennessee's two U.S. senators to block the reappointment of Georgia Tech professor Marilyn Brown to the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Directors threatens energy efficiency efforts that could save ratepayers billions of dollars, some clean-energy advocates contend.
Brown, appointed in 2010 to fill out the last two years of a vacated term, is widely recognized for her expertise in energy efficiency and other "sustainable" energy policies. She teaches in Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy after formerly working for the Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Although President Barack Obama nominated Brown for a full six-year term to start this year, Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker used their powers under Senate procedures to keep her nomination from coming to the Senate floor when the chamber was approving nominations for scores of federal positions on Jan. 1. In order for Brown to be considered now, Obama would need to renominate her, a step considered unlikely.
The move to block Brown's nomination disappointed environmental groups that contend the nine-member TVA board needs at least one member who is well-versed in energy efficiency efforts.
Brown herself praises the TVA's recent energy efficiency efforts but said selling the idea remains a challenge.
"I often was unable to convince some board members that energy efficiency was a good investment for TVA," she said in a telephone interview.
At its simplest, energy efficiency refers to a partnership between energy companies and their customers to provide the same service through the use of less energy.
Customers, often responding to financial incentives provided by utilities, take steps such as using more energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, installing better insulation and window panes and weatherizing doors. Utilities themselves look to run their power plants more efficiently through better maintenance and other steps.
Clean energy advocates see efficiency efforts and conservation as a means of making construction of new power plants, either nuclear or fossil fuel, unnecessary, saving ratepayers billions of dollars over a decade or more.
Criticisms of energy efficiency abound as well, including charges that the energy price savings achieved through efficiency measures just lead to more consumption -- what's called the "rebound effect."
Some conservatives and tea party members contend energy efficiency is a prelude to government-directed "social engineering."
In fact, some tea party members of the Arizona Legislature last year pushed legislation to end state-sponsored energy efficiency programs, associating them with an alleged United Nations plot to create a one-world government.
Neither Alexander or Corker would explain why they didn't think Brown qualified for reappointment. They also declined to answer questions about whether the TVA should continue with energy efficiency efforts.
Both stuck to statements issued through their offices.
Alexander, who advocates that the United States embark on an aggressive program of building nuclear power plants, said: "I certainly respect Dr. Brown's academic credentials, but I encouraged the president to send the Senate a different nominee better suited to membership on the board of directors of the nation's largest public utility."
Corker said that "while Ms. Brown certainly might be qualified to serve as a consultant to TVA, we felt the board would be better served with a different nomination."
The statements dismayed some clean-energy advocates and environmentalists.
"She is probably one of the most qualified board members ever put forth," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"You really have to scratch your head."
Smith said he suspects her "strong advocacy for energy efficiency may not fit with Senators Alexander's and Corker's world view."
Meanwhile, the endorsements from other advocacy groups keep coming
"Marilyn Brown has done an outstanding job as a TVA board member," said Kateri Callahan of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy.
"We think Marilyn Brown brings a critical expertise to the TVA board," added Mark Kresowik of the Washington office of the Sierra Club.
Brown said she hasn't heard if Obama will still push for reappointment.
"They are looking at options," she said of the White House.
White House spokesman Joanna Rosholm said only: "We don't speculate on personnel announcements ahead of the president's decision."
The controversy over Brown's reappointment comes just as the TVA has formulated new plans for reaching its power needs by 2020.
The authority is going forward with the construction of the second unit of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Rhea County, a $4.2 billion to $4.5 billion project begun in 2007.
Meanwhile, TVA's energy savings from energy efficiency and conservation represent about 1 percent of TVA's total sales, TVA spokesman Michael Bradley said.
On the day of highest electricity demand in 2012, the authority transmitted 31,000 megawatts of power.
By 2020, the authority projects a peak demand of 41,000
megawatts with energy efficiency and other "demand-response" programs accounting for 3,600 megawatts of that total.
"We are very encouraged with what TVA is doing with energy efficiency," said Anne Davis, managing attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville.
Davis also said: "We did like Ms. Brown, but we don't see this (the blocked reappointment) as backing away from energy efficiency."
But others say the TVA can do much better at energy efficiency and conservation.
"I would give it a D-plus or C-minus," said John McFadden of the Tennessee Environmental Council.
The Government Accountability Office, in an October 2011 report found TVA's use of energy efficiency is "constrained by several factors, including the TVA's planning approach, which did not allow for potentially more cost-effective levels of energy efficiency in its planning model."
And in August 2012 the Sierra Club released a report by Synapse Energy Economics, a research and consulting firm, that said TVA "is risking wasting billions of dollars to keep aging, out-of-date coal plants online instead of pursuing lower cost options like energy efficiency."
Instead of "raising customer's rates for decades," the report said "an energy efficiency savings program run at a level that TVA acknowledges is achievable, would reduce air pollution, cut customers rates over the long-term, and eliminate the need to operate at least one TVA coal plant in the next three years."
McFadden said Brown not getting reappointed is a triumph for traditional energy sources that pose environmental threats.
"It seems like the nuclear and coal industries are driving the politics around this," he said.
"It's interesting they would drop the one person who really understands how you can generate power in a healthy way."
McFadden said an emphasis on clean energy would yield "a huge economic potential."
Smith, of the Southern Clean Energy Alliance, said Alexander wants TVA to build a lot of new power plants.
"There is no doubt in my mind that he wants that," Smith said. "I don't believe Corker and Alexander appreciate her (Brown's) skill set."