for Our Energy Future
Scott Gates, Consumer & Cooperative Affairs, NRECA
Electricity powers us through every day,
from when our alarm clock wakes us up in the morning to when we turn off
lights at night. While its easy to take electric power for granted, that
may not always be the case. Todays economic crisis makes it all the more
critical that work begin soon to address growing issues in the energy
industry. Otherwise, electricity could quickly become less of an affordable
staple and more of a pricey luxury.
In recent years, the collision of
several factors increasing demand for electricity, rising fuel and
construction costs, and climate change has created whats been called
the energy industrys perfect storm. The U.S. Energy Information
Administration (EIA) forecasts that the need for electricity will climb by
30 percent between now and 2030.
To meet this growth, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture projects that electric co-ops must double generation capacity
over the next 11 years. Yet building new power plants will be expensive, so
electric co-ops must turn to both cutting-edge and time-tested solutions to
keeping the lights on from advanced power-generation technology still under
development to proven energy-efficiency programs.
Without advancing technology, our
options are limited, says Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural
Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of
the nations 900-plus consumer-owned electric co-ops. But whatever
solutions we come to in addressing this energy crisis must keep consumers in
mind. With many electric co-op members already working hard to make ends
meet, this is no time to enact hasty energy policy that will push electric
Relatively high costs for construction
materials and uncertainty about climate change goals, which could place
strict limits on carbon dioxide emitted by power plants, have stalled
development of new baseload generation: the large, efficient stations that
provide dependable and affordable electric power year-round.
New nuclear power plants sources of
clean baseload generation are stymied by high costs and local political
resistance in many areas. As a result, the last new reactor to become
operational was a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plant in 1996, according
to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Since then, only one other, older reactor
was refurbished, also by TVA in 2007.
Unless new, thoughtful public policy
streamlines the process, that trend could continue, English warns.
In years past, the burden of meeting
electric demand would typically fall to coal-fired plants, which provide
about half of the nations electricity. But with plans for new coal plants
hitting snags, utilities are being forced to turn to a more expensive fuel:
natural gas. In 2007, generation and transmission co-ops planned on using
natural gas for a quarter of their new power plants; in just one year that
number has climbed to 53 percent.
The main challenge were facing now
is that its hard to build new baseload generation in general, but even
tougher for units that dont burn natural gas, remarks Paul McCurley,
NRECA chief engineer. The lower up-front costs but higher operating costs
of natural gas generation traditionally made it a good fuel source for
peaking power used when demand for electricity is at its highest but
not for baseload power plants that generate electricity around the clock.
Theres no doubt it is going to be
difficult to build new coal-fired and nuclear power plants in coming years,
two key sources of baseload generation, English says. The resulting
reliance on natural gas increases the risk of higher electric bills to
consumers and lowers overall reliability due to decreasing fuel diversity.
Unfortunately, the question no longer is whether electric bills will
increase, but just how high they will go.
In an effort to broaden limited options
and make bills more affordable, electric co-ops have come to embrace the
concept of a multi-pronged solution spelled out by the Electric Power
Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium whose
members include electric co-ops. With heavy focus on research and
development, an array of yet-to-be-developed and existing technologies could
keep affordable electricity flowing between now and 2030 while significantly
reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Steps to achieving that diverse solution
include investing in renewable energy; building advanced, clean coal-fired
power plants; expanding nuclear power capacity; stringing new transmission
lines; and improving energy efficiency across
Fortunately, electric co-ops have
a long tradition of promoting energy
efficiency. The vast majority of electric co-ops, a full 92 percent, already
sponsor energy-efficiency education programs, and 77 percent offer
residential energy audits to their consumers, explains Ed Torrero,
executive director of NRECAs Cooperative Research Network. Just under
half provide financial incentives for residential energy-efficiency
Load control Pioneers
Electric co-ops are also pioneers in
load management programs, which allow
them to reduce power consumption by managing when and how electricity gets
who volunteer for the programs, typically dont even notice when load
For example, Palmetto Electric Cooperative
in Hardeeville, S.C., controls 33,000 residential electric water heaters,
about half of those in its service territory. As families come home at the
end of every day and turn on lights, ovens and dishwashers, electricity use
spikes. This requires additional power generally from the most expensive
and least efficient generators available to be dispatched to avoid
brownouts or blackouts.
But through load management, Palmetto
Electric and other electric co-ops with similar programs reduce these demand
peaks by switching off water heaters by the thousands.
Load control saves us about $2
million a year in power costs, based on our current demand charge, says
Jimmy Baker, Palmetto Electric vice president of marketing and public
Noting that load management acts like
a power plant in reverse, Torrero indicates that roughly 37 percent of
all co-ops can directly control appliances, chiefly water heaters and air
conditioners. Few realize how well electric cooperatives have done in
Between energy efficiency and load
management efforts, local electric co-ops reduced demand by 2,200 MW in 2006
roughly the equivalent of three large coal-fired power plants, according
to EIA. That added up to $50 million in fuel cost savings and offset more
than 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to what 700 cars put out
in a year.
That kind of proactive planning has
partially reduced pressure on the electric utility industry as a whole, but
more work remains. As soon as next year, some parts of the country could
experience a very real shortage of power unless more power plants are built,
according to a late 2008 report by the North American Electric Reliability
Corporation, a Princeton, N.J.-based non-profit organization charged with
monitoring Americas power system reliability.
As the perfect storms
thunderheads continue to build, electric cooperatives are working hard to
keep electricity safe, reliable and affordable.
English points to the electric co-op
grassroots awareness campaign, Our Energy, Our Future, as an important part
of solving the nations energy crisis, and encourages consumers to visit
www.ourenergy.coop to continue the effort.
By creating a dialogue between consumers and elected
officials about our collective energy future, we build the foundation for a
working partnership in which government understands and can help meet the
needs of cooperative members, English explains. Though co-ops are
taking steps to deal with this impending crisis
through energy-efficiency and demand-response programs, serious policy
decisions are ahead of us the root problems are certainly not going
According to the U.S. Department
of Energy, demand for electricity is projected
to increase 30% by 2030.