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Illinois Country Living

Power through Policy
Co-op members must continue energy dialogue with Congress

By Scott Gates

Coal Plant

Innovative energy projects have already started at many co-ops. For example, Associated Electric Cooperative and Central Electric Power Cooperative have teamed up with local universities to explore the carbon dioxide-absorbing potential of algae. Using photosynthesis, algae in four large pools of water will use energy from sunlight to feed on carbon dioxide from the Chamois coal-fired power plant’s flue gas. An additional benefit is that the oil found in algae can be processed into a biodiesel.

Source: Associated Electric Cooperative Inc.

As businesses owned and governed by their members, electric cooperatives have a long-standing obligation to keep a safe and reliable supply of electricity flowing at a price consumers can afford. In recent years, however, outside pressures have started to chip away at the ability of co-ops to fulfill that commitment.

“We’re facing major issues as we talk about our energy, our future, and what’s going to happen over the next decade,” says Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned electric co-ops. “For all Americans to enjoy safe, reliable and affordable electric power, electric co-op members need to be engaged in a campaign to convince elected officials to focus policy decisions on the critical issues that make up achieving long-term energy solutions – those involving affordability, technology and capacity.”

A major factor influencing affordability is the cost of new generation coupled with dramatic increases in electric demand. A projected 2.6 percent average annual load growth for electric cooperatives through the year 2030 exceeds the U.S. electric utility average of 1.1 percent, and works out to almost a 90 percent increase over present consumption.

For electric co-ops to meet that level, new baseload generation capacity must be built. Yet, costs for building new power plants have skyrocketed. Worldwide economic growth has created a bottleneck for even basic construction materials such as steel, cement, and crushed stone. As a result, the average cost of building coal and nuclear power plants in North America is up a full 130 percent from 2000, according to a study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates and the consulting firm IHS, Inc.

“That means a coal plant that would have cost $1 billion to build in 2000 would cost $2.3 billion to build today,” English remarks.

English adds national energy policy decisions made today will determine whether electric co-ops can “keep the lights on” down the road–and if the standard of living for all consumers will decline. To achieve economically and politically sustainable energy solutions, he recommends the following actions:

• Boosting energy efficiency efforts with $2,500 in direct assistance to the poorest 20 percent of households–those who earn too little to take advantage of existing tax incentives–allowing them to add adequate insulation, replace or upgrade windows, purchase Energy Star appliances, and install more efficient lighting and HVAC systems.

“This will provide the quickest way to slow down the growth in electric demand,” English maintains. “Many household efficiency upgrades come with upfront price tags that, today, lose out to priorities such as groceries and bills for many lower-income families.”

• Fast-tracking plans for building new transmission lines, connecting rural regions where renewable electricity is generated to the population centers where it’s needed.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s electric co-ops draw some amount of electricity through renewable sources such as hydropower, wind, and biomass. Nationally, more than 9,000 MW of new wind generation is currently under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

“But any large-scale increase in renewable generation requires transmission lines to move the power from windswept plains and sunny valleys to city centers and suburbs,” English emphasizes.

• Spending $2 billion per year over the next decade for energy-related research and development. Technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which separates carbon dioxide gas from power plant emissions (primarily coal- or natural gas-fired generation), compresses it for long-term, underground storage, could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for contributing to climate change.

Some pilot programs have already explored this technology. Dakota Gasification Company, a subsidiary of Bismarck, N.D.-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative, captures 8,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide at its Great Plains Synfuels Plant every day. The gas is piped to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and injected in depleted oil fields where it helps bring more crude to the surface.

In Missouri, power supply co-ops Associated Electric Cooperative and Central Electric Power Cooperative have teamed up with local universities to explore the carbon dioxide-absorbing potential of algae. The algae, grown in four large pools, will use energy from sunlight–through photosynthesis–and feed on carbon dioxide from power plant flue gas.

• Cutting through bureaucratic red tape and accelerating the construction of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear generation, a proven, low-emissions producer of baseload generation, currently accounts for 13 percent of electric co-op capacity, a number that must be more than tripled by 2030 to meet demand while reducing carbon emissions.

“Standardized plant designs, new safety features, and a streamlined permitting process would make an expanded nuclear fleet more attainable,” English comments. “Involvement by the U.S. Department of Defense would mitigate risks associated with nuclear reactor technology and the resulting radioactive waste.”

With electric use surging every year, English warns that these pressing issues can’t be ignored any longer. “There’s no sugarcoating the emerging power crisis we face as Americans.”

Our Energy, Our Future

America is facing an energy challenge. Demand for electricity is expected to grow 30 percent by 2030 — and co-op demand is projected to grow at about double the national average.

The nation’s ability to meet that demand is in serious question. Unless we take action soon, co-op members could see brownouts and blackouts.

Costs are rising.

The cost of coal and natural gas, which fuel 70 percent of our power plants, has doubled in the past year.

The cost of building new power generation is rising: A $1 billion plant built in 2000 would cost $2 billion to build today.

If Congress doesn’t get climate change policy right, electric bills could increase dramatically — and consumers are already having difficulty. It’s time to ask elected officials tough questions:

  • Do they have a plan for meeting rising demand?
  • Are they willing to invest in technology that can help solve our energy problems?
  • What are they doing to keep consumers’ electric bills affordable?

It’s time to have a conversation

visit and send an email to your elected officials.


© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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