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Wilson Hydroelectric supervisor Mark Hood examines some of TVAs power-generating units.

TVA launches initiative to strengthen public power during COVID-19

Mark Hood is not a doctor or nurse. He isn’t an ambulance driver, a pharmacist or paramedic. Yet, Hood is among all those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, committed to continuing the service he provides every day.

Hood and his fellow Tennessee Valley Authority employees can’t just shut down and wait out the virus that has changed the landscape of local life since early March. Instead, they are charged with a crucial role: keeping the lights on in the expansive “Tennessee Valley region.”

The coronavirus has led to an extreme reduction in staff that means Hood and other supervisors’ responsibilities and workflow at Wilson Hydroelectric looks a little different than what they are used to. The usual two dozen employees on site have been reduced to one supervisor and two technicians on a two week rotation.

“We have come down to a skeleton crew,” explained Hood, who has been with the TVA about 16 years, transferring from the Wheeler site to Wilson about seven months ago. “Our day-to-day life is to provide power and take care of people here in the Valley.”

Hood said the crew reduction and two-week rotation plan is designed to ensure that if one of their members should contract the virus, they would be able to limit the spread as much as possible and keep things running like clockwork to help provide power to Franklin County Electric Cooperative, Russellville Utilities and all the power companies the TVA serves.

“Provided everybody stays healthy, we’ve got it covered a long way out,” Hood said. “We have to continue to provide power and flood control … We’re covering the basics.”

With fewer hands on deck, Hood said preventative maintenance is TVA’s key focus right now. Every day he’s at the office by 6 a.m., checking in on TVA updates for this area as well as other TVA sites across the Valley, before he goes through a safety check and daily plan with his two technicians. He also has a call-in every morning with his employees who are off rotation, confirming they are well and fit for duty if an emergency came up in which they were needed.

Hood said when the pandemic first started to become a local reality, the TVA instituted “phase one” of its response plan: asking all contractors to leave the site and putting a halt to all ancillary projects in process.

The reduced staff and rotation is phase two – and Hood hopes it won’t get more serious than that because phase three is extreme. “If this worsens and we have to, we have it set up now that we would have people locked in here where they don’t leave the building.

Hood said it’s a point of pride to be able to keep the lights on, appliances purring, Wifi connected and air conditioners operating – especially for the medical professionals who are counting on undisrupted power supply to provide direct care to COVID-19 patients. “It’s important for us to be able to provide for them … (and) for all these people who are out of work or working from home,” he said. “I have a duty here to make sure we can keep the hospitals going, the lights on, keep people at home comfortable and monitor flood control.”

Abby Lolley, manager at Wilson, coordinates frequently with Hood, making sure everything is running smoothly and thanking him for his work, and Hood takes the same approach to working with his technicians. “I treat it like family. I try to come in with a  good attitude,” he said. “A lot of it is just talking to them and making sure everything is good.

“The technicians here on site are doing a fantastic job,” he continued. “They know they have a job to do, and they are doing it and doing it well.

“Working for TVA has taken me to a whole new level of safety,” he added. “We’re a small crew, but we still have to put safety first. There are no heroes here; we’re going to do our jobs slow and steady … We’re needed here. This plant won’t run by itself.”

TVA LAUNCHES CREDIT SUPPORT

The TVA announced March 26 an initiative to support increased flexibility for local power companies responding to urgent community and customer needs during the ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak. In Franklin County, that includes Russellville Utilities as well as Franklin Electric Cooperative.

According to the late-March announcement, the TVA will make up to a total of $1 billion of credit support available as an option to local power companies through the deferral of wholesale power payments based on the needs of individual local power companies.

“The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the communities we serve is unprecedented and creates a degree of economic uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead,” said TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash. “We recognize that we have a responsibility to leverage TVA’s resources and expertise to provide local power companies the stability and flexibility to address the unique challenges faced by their customers.”

Detailed plans will be customized for each participating local power company based on individual needs and financial impacts. A portion of the local power company’s monthly TVA wholesale power payments would be deferred for a period during the ongoing COVID-19 response, and an appropriate repayment plan will be put in place.

TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson said all 154 TVA power companies are eligible to apply for the assistance, and the best way to meet each one’s need will be evaluated on a case by case basis.

“We know local power companies are going to have to take extraordinary steps to help their own customers, and that’s going to pace them under a financial strain as well,” Hopson said. “It’s a way to support them so they can do what’s right, right now, without being totally concerned.”

Hopson said it’s thanks to TVA’s strong financial position that it is able to offer this support. Although it would be impossible to simply permanently waive power companies’ wholesale payments, as that would impact the viability of running the entire hydroelectric system, the TVA is in a solid place financially to absorb some of that strain for the time being, if necessary.

“We don’t know how long this is going to go,” Hopson pointed out.

The new initiative builds on actions the TVA has already taken to provide regulatory flexibility to allow local power companies to halt disconnection of electric service and respond quickly to their customers’ immediate needs.

“The strength of public power is a passionate commitment to serve people over balance sheets,” said Lyash. “This is perhaps more critical today than it has ever been.”

TVA receives no taxpayer funding, deriving virtually all of its revenues from sales of electricity.

In addition to operating and investing its revenues in its electric system, TVA provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists local power companies and state and local governments with economic development and job creation.

Founded in 1954, Franklin Electric Cooperative –  225 West Franklin St. in Russellville – serves Franklin, Lawrence and Colbert counties in Alabama. The company has nearly 8,000 business and residential customers and maintains more about 850 miles of transmission line.

Russellville Electric Board – 721 Jackson Ave. S. – provides Russelville with electric services. Incorporated in 1976, the company has more than 5,000 business and residential customers and maintains more than 120 miles of transmission line.

Russellville and Franklin officials were not available to comment on whether they anticipate needing to apply for this support.

Whatever it takes, the TVA will continue to provide the power homes and businesses need to ride out the pandemic.

“TVA is a big part,” Hood said, “of being successful in the Valley.”

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