Bill Kilbride On Bootlegging, Burning Cordwood And "Keep Your Fingers In Your Pocket"

  • Friday, February 9, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell

Bill Kilbride, whose five-year term as chairman of the board at the Tennessee Valley Authority expired in January this year, addressed the Rotary Club of Chattanooga with tales of bootlegging, burning cordwood and a directive to “keep your fingers in your pocket.”

Imagine you are a drop of water somewhere north of Knoxville, he told the group. The energy you create by falling a few feet will be recreated nine times as you pass through TVA dams in the Tennessee River.

Hydroelectric power is “free power,” he said. “The water’s going to flow.” Hydro turbines turn twice as fast today as they did when the TVA Act was signed in 1933, he stold the club.

“It’s improving markedly,” he said. “That’s got a place.”

Just last month the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted TVA permission to build a gas pipeline at its Cumberland Fossil Plant northwest of Nashville. The pipeline comes near the end of a long-term plan to transition the plant from coal to gas. The fossil plant will be shut in two phases, in 2026 and 2028.

“Gas is a good bridge fuel,” Mr. Kilbride said. Gas is a transition to clean and renewable energy. Many coal plants can use their current furnaces and plumbing, he said, saving time and money as they head for other energy.

The Biden Administration’s goal is no carbon pollution in the power industry by 2035. But Mr. Kilbride said some environmentalists are not happy with gas now, even as a transitional fuel.

“What do you want us to do, burn cordwood?” he asked. He said TVA needs to add capacity, not cut it. If the Cumberland coal plant were shut down without a gas transition phase, “somebody’s going to be without.”

“You can’t always just buy more,” he said.

Nuclear power is clean and renewable. In May 2023 Governor Bill Lee created the Tennessee Nuclear Energy Advisory Council to spur development of new nuclear technology.

In March 2023 TVA announced that it will develop a new small modular reactor design along with three other companies: GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Ontario Power Generation and Synthos Green Energy. Ontario will get the first SMR plant in North America. Construction will be complete in 2028..

“The concrete is being poured,” Mr. Kilbride said.

Tennessee’s Clinch River near Oak Ridge is in line, too, in about 10 years.

Mr. Kilbride was skeptical about solar and wind energy in Tennessee. He said solar plants need 300 acres of flat land. “It takes volume,” he said, and “the sun doesn’t shine every day” in Tennessee.

He drives by TVA’s five wind turbines at Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm near Oak Ridge.

“They’re not moving,” he said. “The birds are sitting on them.”


Mr. Kilbride told the story of the TVA Act passed in 1933 under FDR and outlined TVA’s four missions: To provide power with necessary financing, labor and construction; To use that power to help local people; To develop a solid base for economic development; To protect the watershed.

In 1933, he said, 10 percent of rural Tennessee had electricity.

“If we could go back in time, I think we would be absolutely shocked,” he said. “That life had to be absolutely miserable.”

Mr. Kilbride was president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce in 2016 when Wacker chose a Charleston, Tn., site for its polysilicon production plant, across the Hiwassee River from chlorine manufacturer Olin. Wacker is one of eight direct-serve TVA customers which also include the Fort Campbell Army Base and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

The Wacker plant converts chlorine into polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar panels and microchips. To sign on, Wacker required an uninterrupted power supply, beyond TVA’s 99.9 percent reliability. A break in power would birth a chunk of plastic, he said.

“That point one would ruin this place,” he said. TVA agreed to supply one direct power cable from Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, and another from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. When Wacker opened, its $2.5 billion value was Tennessee’s highest ever.

Wacker now employs 650 people, many of whom are supplied by the Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, a ready-made workforce.

“When you want economic development to work, everyone has to win,” Mr. Kilbride said. “That one was a triple home run.”


Mr. Kilbride said no micromanaging was a top rule during his time as TVA board chairman.

“It’s not meaningful,” he said. “Hands on the table. Keep your fingers in your pocket.”

Mr. Kilbride said he would meet with the TVA CEO at least once in 10 days. TVA has 10,000 employees, $10 billion in revenues, $10 billion in expenses and 10 million people in the TVA watershed.

“You can’t micromanage that,” he said.


As a college freshman at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tn., Mr. Kilbride and his roommate set up a beer supply run to the dry campus in a dry county. The operation was shut down by the college president when students returned from Christmas break. Mr. Kilbride said he took as a compliment the president’s accusation that he was skilled at “capitalizing on other people’s misfortune,” until his dad set him straight.

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