Huntsville attorney Joe Ritch is a busy man. He's the longtime chair of the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee. He's also the chairman of the board for TVA -- the first Alabamian to have that job.
President Barack Obama nominated Ritch for the position in September 2012. The U.S. Senate approved Ritch’s nomination in January 2014.
Ritch began the interview by explaining the difference in how the TVA operates now as opposed to the past.
"Well, starting about ten years ago they changed the way the board was laid out, so we really aren't running the TVA from day to day, we're oversight over management. So because of that it's really not that hard to be in Alabama and we have VTC and every other way you could think to communicate. So there's not that many problems of confusion created by not being in the middle of Knoxville or Chattanooga, which are the two primary areas of TVA," Ritch said.
The TVA is a power provider for multiple states. Keeping that enormous organization together and running is one of the main responsibilities that falls on Ritch’s shoulders.
"Well there are two or three challenges your have as chairman. First of all the board, we've got a good board. We want to keep them together and work together. That's the main thing that's my responsibility. It's also our job overseeing management and making sure they're carrying out the directives of the board, the law and other things that help promote the Tennessee Valley," Ritch said.
The Tennessee Valley power users, as we are in north Alabama, want the rates to stay low, or at least competitive.
Ritch spoke about the challenges of keeping rates low, saying, "Absolutely and that's our focus, because many may not realize it, but we are one of the poorest parts of the country, and it's very important we keep our rates low. When we raise rates, it affects those who can probably least afford it. So challenge one is make sure it's reliable, make sure it's cheap, and also taking care of the Tennessee River. That is critical to us, and we're going to spend the time and effort, and then doing several things the past year to make sure we can keep the rates low."
Part of the TVA’s original mission was to bring affordable electricity all parts of the South. Ritch said that mission is still alive.
“We focus on rates, and we're in a program right now cutting a half a billion in our operations and maintenance costs to get to the right size so we can keep our rates as low as possible. It is priority number one," Ritch said.
According to Ritch, too many employees and too much cost contributed to an inflated TVA.
“Back in the 70's, they got on a very aggressive nuclear power plant building program. We had Three Mile Island, so most of the projects were abandoned, and that created a lot of debt. We had over 50,000 employees at one time. Many of those were on construction. And over time, even when I got on the board we were too many employees and too much cost, and unfortunately some of the employees have had to go, mostly by retirement--voluntary retirement. Those were some of the steps we had to take in order to be a competitive organization and keep those rates low. We had gotten too big, and a little bit cumbersome and bureaucratic," He said.
Steve Johnson told Ritch he was recently on a tour of the Bellefonte nuclear power generating station, which only has one reactor partially completed.
Ritch said about Bellefonte, "It is definitely still on in the plans. There are things that have happened. One, we had our largest customers shut down up in Kentucky. They used about five percent of the power. We've had an overall flat or declining need for electricity. So those things have slowed it down. There's still a large number of people working over there, and it is not off the table by any means at this point. It's still under careful consideration."
Though it is still on the plans, there is no timeline for getting the plant online.
"There is a study going on right now that involves, citizens, experts and so on---the integrated resources plan. And it is evaluating Bellefonte, and many other things going on, and until that is completed it's really not possible to come up with a time frame one way or another," Ritch said.
Diversification in power generation is part of the plan TVA uses to keep prices low.
"Really it's a 40, 20,20,20,20 plan. Which is--fourty percent nuclear, we do have another nuclear reactor coming on next year in WATTS Bar Tennessee, and then coal, gas, hydro, alternative. And that will be a valid portfolio. It keeps us safe from rises in cost on one area. We can then rely on the others a little bit more, and that's a long range plan, but it's out there and I'm not sure about what the time frame would be, but that's the goal," Ritch said.
But the responsibility of power management doesn’t lie completely on the shoulders of TVA. Using power efficiently and conservatively is up to the customers.
"We try to focus on [conservation.] There's always a balance between our role and the local power provider such as Huntsville Utilities. We try to work together and come up with various methods of helping customers adopt more of an energy efficient approach, but remember even if you have solar you're still going to be relying on the utility for power at night and things of that sort, so the transmission lines still have to be there… So we still have to be ready to go even if there are other energy saving programs in place," Ritch said.
TVA is a real player in many aspects of life in north Alabama, including management of our lakes and rivers, among other things.
"Well you may think about electricity, but we hear a lot more about the Tennessee River and various issues. For instance, down in Guntersville they had a Milfoil and Hydrilla problem, so there are many things that you hear about, and as long as electricity is working you don't hear very much. Keep the rates low, keep it reliable, then it moves to other things like lakes, streams, playgrounds etcetera," Ritch said.
Joe Ritch is also the chairman of Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission.
Ritch joked, “I used to could keep up with it a little bit better than I can now. And now there are so many people in high ranking positions, and they're in and out. Sometimes I don't get to know them as well as I did in prior BRAC, and up until 2008 and nine when people started moving here , but we're convinced this is the best place to have programs like this, and we'll continue to work as hard as we can. We stay prepared. We're prepared now, and if we have another BRAC we're ready to and we expect the next one to be just as good as the past two."
Ritch was confident that another BRAC could be coming in the future, saying, “I don't see any way they can continue to live with budget cuts and not reduce their infrastructure. All the services want it badly. The administration is pushing it. Everybody who looks at it says we can't live with the numbers we're going to get, the budget numbers we're going to get without having some infrastructure reduction, and. we'd like to see it happen sooner rather than later. It looks like ‘17’ might be the earliest year. If doesn't happen then, I'm not sure when it'll happen, because it's hard to do these things in an election year. It's always going to be an odd year like 05.”