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Bench-Marks in the Tennessee Valley

I. Strength in the Hills

by Arthur E. Morgan

Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority

January 1934

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THE Tennessee Valley Authority is not primarily a dam-building job, a fertilizer job or power-transmission job. When I first went to see President Roosevelt, he talked about an hour about its possibilities, and there was scarcely a mention of power or fertilizer. He talked chiefly about a designed and planned social and economic order. That was what was first in his mind. At the time I did not realize how far-flung his ideas were, because his recovery program had not been fully revealed. The country as a whole did not appreciate how great a change in private and national life that program would require.

I have spent several hours with him since then talking over the Tennessee Valley Authority from time to time. (Incidentally, on his return from Georgia, he seems to be in fine health, and at the full tide of mental vigor and alertness, quick to focus his life experience upon whatever point is at issue.) The government has provided about $5 billion for his emergency program. About I percent as much is to be used for the TVA. With that ratio in mind, the President wanted somewhere an undertaking that was not emergency, but a deliberate social planning for the future. The TVA is an expression of that desire.

At no point in our planning has the long view entered in more fully than in framing policies which would lead to greater economy in hydro-electric power generation. We go back to floods that antedate the written history of the region, and forward to tree growths that generations from now will hold the rainfall in the ranges. We are preparing to finance further experiments with the huge ten million volt electro-static generator developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which holds out possibilities for sending power vast distances at a loss so small as to fairly minimize the factor of distance. And in the field of power generation, our "framework of reference" has become the unified development of an entire watershed under a single ownership and control. This working conception I put before the New York section of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in December.

In this new epoch of the Tennessee Valley, electrical inventors have been as much pathfinders as Daniel Boone, and great advance in mechanical methods and equipment has taken place along a hundred fronts. Much of it is due to the electrical engineers, but much also is due to the mechanical engineers, the chemical engineers, the mining engineers, the metallurgical engineers, and the ceramic engineers; and back of them to the theoretical mathematicians, the physicists, and the chemists of our universities and scientific laboratories. Improvements in physical equipment cover an enormous range. They include the increased efficiency of the steam engine and the internal-combustion engine, the tungsten light, modern insulators, creosoted poles, present-day alloys, and all those complex devices and methods used in present-day generadon and transmission of electric energy.

But even in the field of scientific invention, administration is playing an increasingly important part. The lone inventor, like the pioneer, is giving way to the highly organized commercial laboratory. In the field of generation and distribution of electric power, the same is true. More effective organization and administration are as necessary as improved technology in the elimination of small stations and the building up of great systems. When it comes to distribution to the ultimate domestic consumer, administration plays a far larger part than the cost of generating and transmitting the current. It is natural, therefore, that in the development of its power policy, the TVA should be giving primary consideration to administrative economies.

Water power in the future may have very stiff competition from both steam and internal-combustion engines. Whether these three million kilowatts of potential water power in the Tennessee River system can be developed in competition with other sources of power will depend upon whether every possible economy is achieved in its development. If the cost of generating water power should be half a cent per kilowatt hour, it may lose out before steam or the internal-combustion engine. If the cost of generating water power can be reduced to a quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour, it may have a relatively clear field.

Without suggesting any particular level of unit cost, I venture the opinion that if the water-power development of the entire Tennessee River drainage area of 40,000 square miles can be given a single unified ownership and control, the unit cost of power may be no more than half of what it would be with divided ownership and management. To illustrate: Near the east boundary of Tennessee is a damsite which will provide vast storage capacity for an area of very heavy rainfall and run-off of a few thousand square miles. From this point down the Tennessee River to its mouth is a fall of, roughly, one thousand feet, nearly all of which can be used for generating power.

A plan has been proposed by a private company for generating power at the upper site with a dam, say 200 feet high, and to administer this power plant as an independent industrial undertaking, perhaps for the operation of a large manufactory. If this power plant is operated as an independent unit, it will be built with a view to its own needs. The management cannot invest money on the chance that stored water might on occasion be used by plants down below, in which it has no financial interest.

IF there were only one up-river plant and one down-river plant, some cooperating arrangement might perhaps be worked out, but with eight or ten down-river plants which have little or no storage, and twenty or thirty up-river plants on half a dozen tributaries, each with storage which could be released, all prospect for voluntary unified and coordinated control fades away. Each plant would be run when its owners chose, without being controlled by the supply of water elsewhere. Trading of water, or exchange of power, would be cumbersome and relatively ineffective.

Now consider what would be accomplished by a single unified system, thoroughly interconnected by transmission lines and controlled from a single office. During wet seasons or wet years the storage dams would be closed until their reservoirs were filled, and all power would be developed from plants having no storage, or inadequate storage. If rains should be heavier on one tributary than on another, the full reservoirs would be drawn upon. On some of the smaller tributaries of the Tennessee, sometimes at high elevations, there are reservoir sites of very large capacity, but without water enough to fill them. Those cheapest and most capacious sites could be developed by building dams, and then, for off-peak hours at night, for a few wet months during the year, and for intermittent wet seasons, all surplus power could be used in pumping water uphill into those high reservoirs which would have power plants to be used during peak loads or for a standby supply. I have seen such developments in Switzerland, where not more than about 15 percent of the energy is lost by the pumping and regenerating process.

With such a single integrated system under a single control, the full hydro-electric power possibilities of the region could be realized, and the cost per unit of private power might be not more than a half or even a third of the cost of separately owned and operated plants. In this process navigation and flood control also would be provided for, with substantial contributions to the low water flow even of the Ohio and the Mississippi.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003