In response to declining natural gas prices and new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the Tennessee Valley Authority – the federal utility created by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s – has been weaning itself off coal-generated power, retiring 11 coal-fired units and idling seven more in the last few years. 

By next year, only 32 of TVA’s 59 original coal plants will remain in operation.

“TVA is working to achieve a more balanced portfolio and meet increasingly stringent environmental regulations,” said Bob Dalrymple, vice president of coal and gas operations. 

While good news for the environment, its bad news for coal plant technicians who face layoffs as more plants shutter.

But a new collaboration between TVA management and the IBEW is helping transition these workers into new positions at the utility. The hydro technician training program taps into the skill and experience of coal operators in order to place them at the TVA’s many dams and hydropower plants.

“The program cuts down on training time and saves management money,” said Tenth District Vice President Robert Klein.

A new joint labor-management training initiative at the Tennessee Valley Authority is helping transition former coal-power plant operations into the utility’s hydro operations.
Credit: TVA

“If you take someone off the street and try training them from scratch, you’re talking about a very long process,” he said. “But through this program, we’re using people already familiar with a lot of what it takes to do the job.”

In the past any TVA employee transferring to another division had to start at the bottom as a trainee. Previous service and training was not recognized. For some workers, the pay cut could be as much as $30,000 a year.

“It put a big hardship on families,” said Chattanooga, Tenn., Local 721 Business Manager Curtis Sharpe. “There nothing in our contract that credited experience.”

The wave of coal plant closings sparked efforts to better transition laid-off coal workers into the utility’s hydro division.

“We looked at what went into the hydro training and what went into the coal one,” Sharpe said. “Some of it was redundant, so we focused on teaching them what they didn’t know.”

The hydro training program lets workers learn on the job, with the pay gap between trainee and technician closing within 12 to 15 months as opposed to 36 months under the old transfer system.

More than 10 employees are in the program, with more expected in the future.

While not every coal-plant employee can be placed into a hydro job, Sharpe says the program is an important step forward in helping keep skilled workers at the TVA.

“Programs like this provide an opportunity for our highly skilled employees impacted by the coal plant changes to continue their TVA career and help TVA serve customers with low-cost, reliable generation,” Dalrymple said.