In just the last decade, generation and transmission cooperatives have invested more than $3.4 billion to reduce emissions and boost efficiency. They are planning billions of dollars more in further upgrades. Here in Illinois, Southern Illinois Power Cooperative and Prairie Power, Inc. joined six consumer-owned municipal agencies and invested $1 billion in emission control equipment at the Prairie State Generating Campus. This 1,600 MW supercritical power plant also includes a nearby coal mine, further reducing the cost and emissions by eliminating train transportation.
Cooperatives have always balanced investments in efficiency and the environment with the need to control costs for members. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a series of new environmental standards for new coal power plants that potentially could have a devastating impact on the ability of electric cooperatives to provide affordable and reliable electricity.
While complying with all these standards could cost power generation cooperatives millions of dollars, “the most pressing issue, and the one that could have the biggest impact on us, is the proposed rule that will come out this June on carbon dioxide emissions for existing power plants,” says Kirk Johnson, NRECA Senior Vice President of Government Relations.
Cooperatives are more dependent on coal-fired generation than the rest of the industry. The reason lies in the tumultuous decade of the 1970s. Remember the oil embargoes, gas lines and soaring prices? For much of the 1970s, the nation was caught up in a complicated energy crisis that involved disruptions in Middle Eastern oil supplies and a conviction the world was running out of oil and natural gas.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter called on the United States to “shift to plentiful coal” to meet its growing energy needs. A year later, Congress went further, passing the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act to block the use of natural gas or oil to generate electricity.
Electric cooperatives stepped up to meet the challenge, adding 15,600 MW of coal-based capacity during the natural gas ban. “That’s when we built 70 percent of our coal generation, during the period leading up to and during the Fuel Use Act,” says John Novak, NRECA Executive Director of Environmental Issues. The Fuel Use Act was repealed in 1987.
Novak says coal-fired units still have many years of effective life and generation and transmission cooperatives have already invested significantly to meet EPA regulations like at the Illinois Prairie State Generating Campus. Coupled with the other rules now being considered by the EPA, the rule on carbon dioxide emissions could be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Novak says.
Co-op representatives, along with NRECA staff, have met with EPA officials to make their case for reasonable solutions. Co-ops also continue to work on upgrades and new technologies to make their plants even cleaner, while still providing the affordable power members expect.
“Our folks are engaged in all kinds of activities to improve the efficiency and environmental performance of our power plants across the board,” says Johnson. “They’re very serious about finding solutions that are affordable for members.”
Co-op members have also participated, sending nearly 300,000 comments and stories, telling the EPA why we need a reasonable balance in our energy and regulatory strategy. You can tell the EPA if you agree by going to the Cooperative Action Network at www.action.coop.
By Reed Karaim who writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.