Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."

It shall not be quenched night and day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste

Isaiah 34:10



Energy Consumption

  • Consumption of energy affects the water, the air, and the whole system of life. We consume energy for heat, light, the manipulation of information, and motive force in myriad residential, commercial, and industrial applications. Here, the topic is non-transportation uses of energy, and , especially, of electricity.

  • We pride ourselves on having learned to control energy, yet our control of energy is only local and brief. Social, ecological, and even geological forces are set loose beyond our knowledge and will to control as a result of our energy use.

  • The transformation of the world by millions of streetlights, neon signs, and house lights affects animal as well as human life on earth. People loose touch with the stars, and thus with the natural world. Animals that navigate by moonlight are forever effected.

  • Electric lighting is the single largest commercial use of electricity. We see this as all night advertising, strip malls with interior lights used during the day when it could be avoided, as well as at night for safety & advertising. The most wasteful of all regional commercial lighting displays can be found for the 23 miles that stretches through the towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville during the holiday season.

  • Manufacturing, from chip mills to food production, also consumes vast amounts of energy. The chemical industry--companies like ALCOA and Tennessee Eastman (Kodak)--consumes the greatest amount of electricity in our region.

  • Our home lives also use huge amounts of energy. Many of the appliances we use are inefficient and outdated. For example, electric water heaters, which are still used in over three-quarters of homes in the TVA region, are remarkably inefficient. Electric water heaters heat large volumes of water, even when there is no demand for it, by electric resistance which is both inefficient and expensive. Within the TVA region, water heating makes up 19.3% of the total residential use of electricity.

  • Space heating consumes 17.3% of the total residential use of electricity in the region. Around the region 29% of the homes in the region use electric resistance for heating, while 18% of primarily use wood for heat. Electric resistance heats space even more inefficiently than it does water.

  • Space cooling consumes 16.5% of the total residential use of electricity in the region. 84% of homes use air conditioning. Air conditioning not only contributes to outdoor pollutants, but traps indoor pollutants as well.

  • "Other" residential consumption of energy comes from inefficient (incandescent) light bulbs, microwave ovens, electric ranges, dishwashers, blow dryers, computers, radios, toasters, and other household conveniences. These seemingly little things consume 31.5% of the total residential energy use in the TVA area.

  • Alternatives are available. Good insulation and passive solar architecture (the functional use of daylight) can reduce the financial and environmental costs to a minimum. Natural gas appliances are not only more efficient, they also contribute to less pollution, acid rain, and global warming. "On demand" water heaters, which are used extensively in Europe, do not waste energy heating water that is not being used. Passive solar water heaters use the sun to increase efficiency.

  • Estimates indicate that the average person in the United States consumes about forty times as much energy as the average person in the "less-developed" world. Sources of all this energy are mostly the burning of coal and use of nuclear fuels. These sources entail great harms and risks to our environment, and humanity as a whole.

    Power Transmission

  • Until the late 1970's, transformers and substations contributed to the contamination of the soil and water of Southern Appalachia. Transformers leaked and sometimes exploded, spewing out carcinogenic PCBs. When the transformers wore out, they were taken to scrap yards, such as David Witherspoon, Inc. in Knoxville, where they were broken open, allowing the PCBs to spillout on the ground.

  • Power lines produce electromagnetic fields that surround us. Although invisible, several studies have suggested that these fields do have real physical effects, possibly contributing to childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer. The clearing of the land for the lines by use of poisonous herbicides and the resulting fragmentation of the forests have detrimental effects on plants and humans and the entire ecosystem.

    TVA-Tennessee Valley Authority

  • Most power lines in our region lead back to generating stations owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). In 1933, TVA was established to help the Tennessee Valley recover from the Great Depression and decades of egregious environmental abuse. Clearcutting had all but eliminated the forests which, combined with destructive mining and farming practices, produced massive erosion and catastrophic flooding. TVA aimed to solve these problems with dams to control flooding, promote river traffic, and generate electricity. TVA also began reforesting the area.

  • World War II brought increased demand for electricity, from both ALCOA (which made parts for aircrafts) and from Oak Ridge were uranium was enrichment for nuclear bombs. By 1945, TVA had built its first coal-fired plant at Watts Bar. Electrification proceeded rapidly. In 1970 30% of homes in the valley were heated with electricity, and TVA customers used twice as much electricity as the national average.

  • By the 1960's, low electric rates and cheap river transportation led to industrial growth. Coal and hydroelectric power alone could not meet the electricity demand. So, in the late '60's TVA announced its plan to build 17 nuclear reactors. In 1967, TVA broke ground for Brown's Ferry, the nation's largest nuclear facility.

  • The energy crisis of the 1970's brought TVA back to its original mission, conservation. TVA sponsored a million residential energy audits and provided low-interest or no interest loans to finance energy-saving equipment. Weatherizing homes saved 1400 megawatts of power, the equivalent of 2 medium-sized nuclear reactors! TVA moved to the forefront of sustainable energy. This ended with the entrance in the 1980's of the Reagan years. In 1988, Chairman Marvin Runyon, a Reagan appointee enacted "cutbacks" which eliminated these conservation initiatives.

  • In the 1990's TVA's nuclear program has become mired in debt and faces financial disaster. A near melt down at Brown's Ferry in 1975, and the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, brought greater regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 1985, whistle blower complaints led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down TVA's entire nuclear system. The delays caused by the needed corrections led to incredible cost overruns. For example, the Watts Bar reactors were begun in 1973, but only one was finished by 1996. The cost was initially projected to be 370 million dollars; but the final cost for completing just one unit was seven billion dollars.

  • TVA's nuclear program comprises nearly 68% of the agency's investments, but it constitutes only 14% of its generating capacity. Additional nuclear plants have come on line, but these are projected to boost the nuclear share of generating capacity only to twenty percent.

  • At present, deregulation of the utility industry looms on the horizon. Historically, TVA has been federally protected from competition. Within the current political environment, the existence of TVA is in question. One of the options for congress in dealing with the debt-ridden agency is to privatize it, that is disband it and sell it to the highest bidder. However, this would enable prvate developers to destroy even more of the ravaged Tennessee Valley. Even if this does not happen, these developments have even further shifted the original TVA mission from conservation to marketing consumption -- getting people to use more electricity, while avoiding natural gas, so TVA can sell more electricity.

    Energy from Running Water

  • TVA has 29 hydroelectric dams, and a pumped storage hydro facility at Raccoon Mountain. Some of these are threatened by siltation. Hydroelectric is TVA's cheapest and cleanest source of electricity, but it is often used only intermittently. Building the dams displaced thousands of people. The ecological damage ranged from submersion of rich agricultural areas, and the transformation of rivers into stagnant reservoirs.

  • The pumped storage generating facility at Raccoon Mountain on the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga pumps water uphill to a reservoir. During periods of peak demand, when additional power is needed, the water in the reservoir is released back down the mountain to generate electricity. To create this reservoir, trees were cut down and a mountain top reshaped. The reservoir cannot be used for recreation or wildlife because it is constantly being emptied and filled.

    Energy from Fossil Fuels

  • TVA has eleven coal-fired power plants and forty-eight natural-gas or oil-powered combustion turbines. Most of TVA's electricity is generated by coal. Coal is also the most destructive means by which TVA produces electricity: acid rain, haze, carbon monoxide, low-level ozone, thermal pollution of rivers, emission of toxic metals, including radionuclides, and global warming. Also, the storage of the slag it produces contaminates groundwater. Most coal of Southern Appalachia is so high in sulfur that it creates unacceptably high levels of sulfur dioxide when burned.

  • The mining and transportation of coal disrupts habitats, poisons miners, and destroys wildlife. The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 outlawed some of the worst mining abuses. However, even when the law is obeyed strip mining is inherently destructive. Beginning with a clearcut, the topsoil is scraped away and the subsoil is drilled and blasted. This process increases erosion and siltation. Watercourses and acquifers are disturbed or destroyed, and water may be contaminated with acid drainage from sulfur bearing rocks, or with toxic metals or minerals. Aquatic life may disappear, and streams turn red or yellow. Nearby wells may become cloudy, dry up, or be poisoned. Coal hauling trucks create potholes and other road hazards. The blasting and moving may buckle or crack the foundations of buildings. The noise produces stress and can lead to loss of hearing. Miners have a high incidence of lung and stomach cancer.

  • A few years after replanting, a reclaimed strip mine may look healthy and green, but the land is never the same: the new topsoil may be mixed with less fertile topsoil, the activity of beneficial insects and microorganism may not be restored, acid drainage is likely to continue. Many operators use Kentucky-31 fescue for replanting, a tall grass which discourages both forest growth and the return of wildlife. Soil compaction can stunt tree growth by more than thirty years. Understory vegetation probably takes well over a century to recover.

  • These damages occur at the best of mines, in full compliance with the law. Some coal companies have enough money and political influence to stave off law enforcement, while others move quickly, violate the law, and then vanish in a cloud of legal shenanigans. SOCM (Save Our Cumberland Mountains) found 52 sites that were in violation of the law during the period 1988-1991. As of 1992 only 17 had been reclaimed.

  • Underground mining is less damaging than strip-mining, though the harm from mining roads and initial cuts may still be considerable. Moreover, underground mining can disrupt acquifers. They fill with water, overflowing toxic or acidified water in streams, or collapse unpredictably decades after abandonment.

    Energy from Nuclear Fission

  • TVA operates five nuclear reactors at three sites on the Tennessee River. Three of these are in our bioregion: two at Sequoyah, on Chickamauga Reservoir above Chattanooga, and one at Watts Bar, near the Watts Bar Dam. Though TVA began work on seventeen reactors, all others have been mothballed or abandoned.

  • All nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive materials. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether these releases can harm people living nearby. The greatest concern with nuclear plants is the possibility of a major release of radio nuclides, as happened in Chernobyl, 1986 (contaminating 3,900 square miles of land). TVA has had one near-meltdown (at Browns Ferry in 1975), and an American built reactor at Three Miles Island in Pennsylvania underwent a partial core melt in 1979. These incidents indicate that the risk of a serious accident is not negligible. The possibility of a terrorist attack compounds the peril.

  • TVA's nuclear power plants use uranium for fuel, 1,250 tons a year. The mining of uranium, like coal, harms both people and the land. In the 1970's the nuclear industry's greed for uranium prompted thefts of Native American land. One of the FBI agents in charge of the suppression of Native American resistance to this theft was Norman Zagrossi, who is now Chief Administrative Officer at TVA.

  • Currently, TVA is moving together with the Department of Energy to produce tritium at the Watts Bar and Bellafonte nuclear reactors. Tritium is a radioactive component that boosts the megatonnage of thermonuclear weapons. This would be the first use of civilian reactors for nuclear weapons production, weakening the nuclear non-proliferation agreements made by America and Russia.

  • Although touted by its proponents as "clean," nuclear energy creates large volumes of waste. Low-level waste consists of such objects as filters, cloth wipes, paper wipes, plastic shoe covers, and various residues -- all contaminated for at least a decade. TVA's low level waste is sent to land burial facilities, such as Barnwell, South Carolina and Wake County, North Carolina.

  • TVA's five reactors produce over 115 metric tons per year of high level waste, consisting mostly of spent fuel rods, . This waste remains deadly for tens of thousands of years -- longer than civilization has existed on earth. There is yet no way to make the waste non-radioactive. Thus the waste is stored "temporarily" on site, a precariously dangerous option at best. So far, no permanent facility for long term storage has been found.

  • The appropriate life-span for a nuclear reactor is thirty to forty years. TVA's two Browns Ferry reactors operating licenses will expire in 2014 and 2016. Nobody knows exactly how expensive it will be to dismantle them and dispose of the resulting waste. Given TVA's 27.5 billion dollar debt, it is unclear who will pay for this.

    Sustainable Energy Resources

  • We need to develop and utilize new sources of energy that are safe, reliable, and sustainable. Hydroelectric power could be increased, but there is little room for new dams, and it seems foolish to flood more land. Fossil fuel reserves are finite and cause much environmental damage. Nuclear energy has proved expensive and unsafe. Indeed, any technology that passes radioactive trash on to generations tens of thousands of years in the future is morally corrupt. Alternatives such as conservation measures, biological fuels, wind power, and solar energy already exist, and each can be used sustainably into the future.

  • Biomass from waste or residue consisting of wood or the byproducts of agriculture and food processing, energy crops, is the most practical biological fuels for large-scale power production. TVA has successfully experimented with burning a mix of coal and wood waste. This "co-firing" decreases coal consumption, reduces toxic emissions, and diverts wood waste from landfills. Energy crops, such as fast growing trees and grasses, consume nearly as much carbon while growing as they emit during combustion. Thus, when wisely used, energy crops add little to global warming. The worst biomass is whole logs, because the Southern Appalachian forests are already under extreme pressure from pulp and paper operations. On a smaller scale, methane gas from landfills, sewage plants, and composting manure can provide biomass energy. The Chestnut Ridge Landfill in Anderson County is an example of how the methane can be used to run generators rather than escaping and increasing global warming.

  • Wind energy is clean, reliable and cost effective. A recent study by Kenetech Wind Power, Inc. has identified a wind power generating capacity of between 700 million and 200 billion watts in or near TVA's territory (TVA's capacity in 1995 was 26 billion watts). Yet, TVA has no plans to use this capacity.

  • Solar energy, the sun, is ultimately responsible for biomass, fossil fuel, hydropower, and wind energy. Current commercial photovoltaic panels can generate 120 watts per square meter. Recent advances have made them economically competitive with conventional power sources. The main expense is installing the panels. Once installed, however, they provide power all day, everyday. They are less effective, but still operable when it is cloudy. They work even when there is a general power failure. Because they provide almost no power at night, solar panels must be combined with a storage device and/or some other source of power. But, the beauty of solar panels is that they need not be centralized into immense power plants to operate efficiently. The roofs of already existing buildings provide a vast area which is suited for their use.

  • TVA once actively encouraged conversion to solar energy. Advances in technology make that conversion even more feasible now. The likely deregulation may soon allow customers to select the utility from which to buy electricity. Green pricing, a plan which allows customers to pay a premium in order to receive energy generated from environmentally benign sources, could be possible -- if we as consumers demand it.

    Energy Conservation

  • The damages and risks of our current energy production are immense. Therefore, when we can reduce consumption and use energy more efficiently, it is a moral imperative that we do so.

  • But there are also economic motivations to reduce consumption. Demand for electricity is increasing. Developing new facilities is expensive and risky, as the TVA nuclear program has proven. Many utilities have found it less risky and still profitable to increase rates while offering conservation programs aimed at decreasing demand. With lower energy demand, consumer's bills remain constant and the electricity producers provide less energy while receiving similar returns of money. This "win-win" strategy is called "demand-side management."

  • Demand-side management often involves providing discounts on and/or giveaways of compact fluorescent light bulbs, low interest loans for weatherization, installs solar systems and heaters, incentives for industry to replace old inefficient electric motors, and so on.

  • There are things that we can do! We can 1) support and vote for those who understand the energy dilemma and will move towards conservation, 2) complain to and boycott businesses that misuse electricity, 3) reduce home energy use, 4) improve water heating efficiency, 5) use fans instead of air-conditioning, 6) plant shade trees, 7) and many, many more ways