Tackling Climate Change
Affordable & Reliable
by Jennifer Taylor
In Mecklenburg County, Va., Helen Mull, a retired senior citizen, worries about increasing costs of food and fuel. “Some months, if I didn’t have a little bit of money in reserve, I wouldn’t be able to pay all of my bills,” she admits.
In one month, her entire social security check — a mere $1,000 a month — went to paying county taxes and home insurance. And it isn’t just those living on fixed or lower incomes feeling the pinch. From the grocery store register to the gas pump, most folks are being squeezed by increasing prices.
Escalating costs for fuel, including coal and natural gas, and power plant construction materials such as steel, concrete and copper, are pressuring electric cooperatives as well.
“This is the biggest consumer challenge electric cooperatives have faced since the inception of the rural electrification program,” says Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “And all of this is happening before the implementation of any climate change policy. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants while ensuring that our nation’s power needs are met must include a blend of energy-efficiency programs, advanced clean coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewable generation sources.”
Across the country, electric co-ops are stepping up to the challenge to keep electricity affordable in the face of what has become an industry-wide “perfect storm.” In looking out for their members, electric co-ops lead the utility industry in implementing energy-efficiency programs and supplying power from renewable energy and other technologies still in development.
In Missouri, electric cooperatives have distributed more than a million compact fluorescent light bulbs in an all-out effort to help consumers save energy and lower monthly bills. Some co-ops are offering rebates for energy-saving appliances and low-cost energy audits to find members more savings.
“Co-ops are on the cutting edge when it comes to testing and deploying new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and advanced meter reading devices,” notes John Holt, NRECA senior principal for generation and fuel. “Electric cooperatives are also recognized industry leaders in promoting energy efficiency to help consumer-members reduce electricity consumption and save money.”
But there is no simple, single solution to tackling our nation’s energy challenge, and even exciting new technologies such as renewable energy resources aren’t a silver bullet. For example, to fully utilize the potential of renewable energy, at least 30,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines (230 kilovolt and greater) will need to be constructed to move energy generated at remote wind farms and other facilities to urban load centers. This alone will cost billions.
Siting and erecting transmission towers has long been a struggle, explains Revis James, director of the Energy Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a Palo Alto, Calif.-based non-profit consortium whose members include electric co-ops. “Planning and permitting approvals take many years and run a gauntlet of not only federal, state and local governments but also citizen and environmental activists. Even building 75 miles of transmission line poses a big challenge because of NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitudes.”
“While renewable generation sources are good assets and help address climate change, too much focus on them short-changes attention from how we’re going to address the greater generation capacity crunch facing the country,” suggests Holt.
According to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which oversees the reliability of the U.S. power grid, electricity use nationwide will grow more than twice as fast as committed power generation resources during the next 10 years. Unless additional power plants are brought into service quickly, NERC predicts many parts of the country could fall below targeted capacity margins within two or three years, setting the stage for brownouts and blackouts.
Nearly half of electricity generation in our nation comes from coal-fired power plants. But mounting pressures to lower greenhouse gas emissions have made it more difficult and costly to build these facilities.
As a result, natural gas has become the “bridge” fuel of choice for keeping the lights on. In fact, the next power plant for Missouri’s electric cooperatives is a natural gas plant now under construction in Oklahoma.
Natural gas plants usually are smaller than coal-fired or nuclear plants; can be built faster; and typically face less public opposition than other power generation options, making them a convenient alternative. But natural gas also has its drawbacks.
Before recent declines, the price of natural gas tripled since 2002 and jumped 93 percent since August 2007. Price fluctuations combined with limited domestic reserves and a greater reliance on imports make natural gas prices highly volatile. As more natural gas is used for electricity, electric bills are likely to increase as well.
With so many variables at play, the future of safe, affordable and reliable electricity will depend on public policy decisions made by elected officials. Will Congress adopt quick-fix legislation that drives electricity bills up so high people are forced to use less, or will it take a more long-term, sustainable path by investing in long-term solutions to energy concerns?
For all who pay electric bills every month, including those struggling to make ends meet like Helen Mull, allowing American know-how to tackle the problem seems like the obvious solution.
To ensure that electric cooperatives can continue to meet consumer energy needs, co-ops across the country are engaged in a grassroots awareness campaign called “Our Energy, Our Future: A Dialogue With America.” This campaign seeks to engage lawmakers on critical energy questions, such as how to balance growing electricity needs and environmental goals, and how much all of this will impact electric bills.
Please visit www.ourenergy.coop to get the conversation started. Affordability should remain the measure by which our elected officials judge any energy legislation.
Taylor writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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