Not a day went by between the end of Bill Johnson’s tenure as president of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Thursday’s naming of Johnson as the new chief executive of Pacific Gas & Electric, the troubled California utility that has been reeling from two seasons of destructive wildfires sparked in part by its equipment.
PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, saying it couldn’t afford the tens of billions of dollars in wildfire costs. The company said the appointment of Johnson — along with the installation of ten board members from the world of finance, utilities and federal regulation — would help the utility “address California’s evolving energy challenges.”
The 65-year-old Johnson, whose $6 million compensation package made him the federal government’s highest-paid employee, brings with him extensive experience in a highly political management role, which will be needed in his new job, too. More than half of Johnson’s incentive pay will be tied to safety performance.
At the Tennessee Valley Authority, he cut expenses and reduced the agency’s debt by $3.5 billion, in part by eliminating 3,000 jobs. He has presided over the continued phase out of coal from the TVA fleet and defended the agency’s decision to retire an aging coal plant even after President Trump, in a tweet, urged the TVA to keep it open. An advocate for nuclear power, Johnson is also a defender of the authority of a state like California to set its own goals.
“I’ve spent six years at TVA, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s experiments from the New Deal,” Johnson said last week in an interview with The Washington Post. “Most people remember it from school but don’t really know what it does.”
Like the Green New Deal, which Johnson called “aspirational,” the original version was woven together with the economic agenda.
“The old New Deal came at a different time,” Johnson said, “when the country was on the brink of disaster. His idea was to put the country back to work. His objectives were more concrete and achievable — dams, parks, highways.” He paused, “Maybe they’re similar.”
Johnson’s tenure at the TVA has been as much about dismantling as building. The agency, which serves customers in seven states, relied on coal for 60 percent of its electricity generation in 2005 and will rely on it for just 17 percent by the end of this year. Johnson said it was a simple matter of costs and the agency’s aging coal plants should be closed even if one or two newer ones remain.
He said the TVA’s plan set goals of retiring more coal plants, and building utility scale solar plants and also natural gas-fired plants that can quickly come on line if needed to help intermittent solar plants.
Johnson has overseen the addition of one gigawatt of solar and 1,400 megawatts of wind. The TVA’s carbon emissions fell about 50 percent over the past decade, much of that during Johnson’s time.
The agency’s reliance on coal is because “we have put a lot of money in those plants and they have all the modern equipment, but the future is big solar backed with gas,” he said.
“I am in the camp saying we need to do something about climate change,” he said. “I think the question is how long that transition will take from gas to the next thing. I don’t think it’s a decade. I think everything is moving in the right direction, but I think the question is whether it is fast enough.”
He said California does not tax carbon dioxide emissions but has made those costs part of electric rates. “I live in the south,” said Johnson, who was once chief executive of Progress Energy. “I am a states’ rights person. I think if you live in a state that wants to do that, that’s what you should do.”
PG&E, which has 24,000 employees and 16 million customers, faces legal and operational challenges. California wants the utility to continue to meet ambitious renewable portfolio standards that would boost the use of solar and wind. Yet, some of the contracts California utilities have signed are above the free market levels and a bankruptcy judge might order a renegotiation.
While California has launched a plan to shut down its two nuclear reactors, Johnson said he is a fan of nuclear power, adding that companies must learn to build reactors on budget.
“I’m a longtime pro-nuke person. I’m actually pro-consumer and pro-environment, which leads me to be pro-nuke. If you really think climate is an issue, you can’t get there without nuclear.”
But given enormous cost overruns and the shelving of two reactor projects in South Carolina, “you’d have to be a very brave person,” Johnson said. Even the half-finished nuclear reactor the TVA completed and put into service cost $4.7 billion, way beyond the $2.5 billion estimate.
“We don’t do enough engineering before we get in the field,” he said. “So, we tend to run into problems when constructing. In this country, we have lost a lot of our ability to build major projects. Could this country build the Hoover Dam today? I don’t think we could. We’ve lost a lot of that capability.”