More than 75 years ago — on Tuesday, June 19, 1945 — representatives of six municipalities, one cooperative, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Cities Service Power & Light Company and the East Tennessee Light and Power Company met in the General Shelby Hotel in Bristol, Virginia, to complete the last formal step necessary for the transfer of the utility property to the new public and government agency owners that would take place on June 29, 1945. Nearly two hours were required to get numerous signatures on a great volume of contracts and sales agreements.
First to be signed was the purchase agreement to transfer the entire property from Cities Service Power & Light to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Then the sale agreements transferring the distribution facilities to the various municipalities were formally signed. Those included Bristol, Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia, as well as Johnson City, Greeneville, Erwin, Elizabethton and a cooperative in North Carolina.
For Bristol, Tennessee, a $1.3 million issuance of Electric Light & Power bonds was required to finance the transaction from TVA. BTES immediately agreed to terms of a 20-year power contract for TVA to supply power, which BTES distributed to the public at substantially lower rates.
In accordance with Chapter 32 Public Acts of Tennessee 1935 and the contract with TVA, a five-man power board was established by the city to have general supervision and control of the municipally owned electric system.The first board members included G.F. Helms, G.W. Vance, E.M. Woolsey, J.E. Fulwider and E.W. Crenshaw. A former East Tennessee Light & Power Company official, John L. Gray, was named general manager, working with 19 employees to serve approximately 5,300 customers. The newly created electric system located its general offices in the Cannon building at the corner of Fourth and State streets in Bristol, Tennessee.
In 1956, the general offices and warehouse facilities relocated to 37 Fourth St., which was later 137 Edgemont Ave. (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the location of the Salvation Army.) In 1958, Gray retired and Treasurer-Accountant E.O. Olson was named general manager. During his tenure, the revenue bonds for the original purchase of BTES were retired. In 1965, former BTES Superintendent Earl W. Doggett was named to succeed Olson, who had retired. The downtown underground distribution system was completed under Doggett’s guidance. This was the largest and most costly single project undertaken by BTES up to that time. Doggett retired in 1967. James D. Sherfey from Glasgow, Kentucky, was hired as general manager in 1967. Plans for a new Power Service Center at 2470 Volunteer Parkway were announced in July 1968. In August 1969, revenue bonds totaling $2.7 million were issued by BTES. Major expenditures included the Power Service Center, three new substations (King College, Steele Creek and Airport) and distribution/transmission system improvements related to the new substations.
In 1971, when the Power Service Center Open House was held, 87 employees served approximately 18,000 customers. The engineering, warehouse and garage facilities were moved to this new location on Volunteer Parkway, which is the center of the BTES service area. Dr. R. Michael Browder, who had held the position of director of engineering and operations since 1972, was named general manager in 1977 when Sherfey left Bristol to become the general manager of Lee County Electric Cooperative in Ft. Myers, Florida. In 1986, an addition was made to the Power Service Center to house the administrative and accounting functions, which were moved from Edgemont Avenue to 2470 Volunteer Parkway. The building on Edgemont Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) was sold to the Salvation Army.
Eight substations have been designed and built by BTES personnel since the 1980s — Piney Flats, Scott (named for former Board Chairman Conley Scott, who served 23 years on the Board of Directors, with 20 of those as board chairman), Medical Center, Industrial Park, Exide and Blountville Primary, which is our second 161 kV delivery point.
Since 1982, BTES has reduced electric rates to our customers seven times. BTES’ rates are a little more than eight cents per kilowatt hour compared to the national average of more than 10 cents per kilowatt hour.
BTES is the city’s largest in-lieu-of-tax payer, and in the past five years has paid more than $6.2 million to the city of Bristol, more than $1.8 million to Sullivan County, and $30,360 to the city of Bluff City.
In 1992, a team of employees developed vision and mission statements based on what had been ingrained in the BTES culture for many years... “to be the best electric distribution utility” and “to provide service to customers, employees and community that exceeds their expectations.” These were updated in 2006 to include Internet, telephone and cable. These were updated again in 2023.
After the major snowstorm in 1998 that cut off electric service to every BTES customer and hampered BTES’ efforts to restore power not only by road conditions but also by lost communications, BTES decided to install a fiber optic communication system that linked the substations to our office. This existing fiber optic system expanded in the fall of 2005 when BTES began providing cable television and Internet services. In March 2006, BTES received approval from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to offer telephone service, and in November 2006, the company began providing telephone service. BTES now provides some of the fastest Internet speeds available in the United States with speeds of ten Gigabits per second available to every business and home in our service area!
Dr. Browder retired as CEO from BTES in 2022. Clayton Dowell, who had been serving as the Vice President of Engineering, stepped into the position of CEO upon Dr. Browder's retirement.
Today, BTES serves more than 34,000 electric customers with only 68 employees. BTES and its employees have received many awards, including the American Public Power Association’s (APPA) E.F. Scattergood System Achievement Award in 1994, 2009 and 2021; the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence Award of Excellence in 1994 and 2012; the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association’s (TMEPA) Community Service Award in 2010 and 2019; APPA’s Community Service Award in 1997, 2010 and 2017; the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2017; and is an APPA Diamond Level RP3 Recipient, among many others.
We are proud of the accolades we have received over the years, but we are most proud of the confidence and support our customers have shown us through more than 75 years of change. We thank you and look forward to the next 75 years and the exciting changes that will make BTES and our entire community even better!