Financial History 140 Winter 2022 | Page 36

The POWER of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s

Library of Congress
By Michael A . Martorelli
The legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority ( TVA ) in 1933 implicitly acknowledged that producing and distributing electric power would be by-products of two important agency missions of improving navigability and providing for flood control on the Tennessee River . The Authority was to accomplish those goals by acquiring or constructing a series of hydroelectric power-producing dams on a treacherous portion of that river . And even that plan fulfilled only a partial objective of what President Franklin D .
Norris Dam and Powerhouse , circa 1930s .
Roosevelt ( FDR ) hoped would be a new type of regional planning agency .
FDR envisioned it not only bringing inexpensive electric power to the two million residents of the 41,000 square mile Tennessee River Basin , but also enhancing the region through environmental conservation , reforestation and both agricultural and economic development . The new Authority ’ s leaders initiated programs aimed at meeting each of those objectives . Throughout the first half dozen years of the TVA ’ s existence , however , Director David Lilienthal drove the agency primarily in the direction of becoming an important provider of electric power .
Setting the Stage
Even before taking office as the 32nd President of the United States , FDR had frequently voiced his objections to the activities of investor-owned electric utilities , accusing them of using their monopoly power to take maximum advantage of ratepayers . In related comments , he had also decried the inability of state regulatory agencies to limit the behaviors of the utility holding companies that controlled more than 70 % of the investor-owned industry ’ s output .
In September 1932 , on the heels of an investigational report on that industry by the Federal Trade Commission ( FTC ), candidate Roosevelt proposed a multi-part program to reform the electric utility regulatory system . In early 1933 , President-Elect Roosevelt voiced his support for an increased governmental role in using the nation ’ s vast water resources to generate and distribute hydroelectric power . He did not advocate a government
34 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Winter 2022 | www . MoAF . org