Tackling Climate Change
Putting you first: fighting to keep the lights on
by Jennifer Taylor
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, demand for electricity nationally will increase by 40 percent during the next 22 years — even with an optimistic projection of a 9 percent reduction in electricity use due to increased efficiency factored in. As the economy expands, the need for power grows right along with it.
Nearly every respected analysis, however, finds that our country is running out of power. And as a result, there’s a good chance consumers could experience brownouts and even rolling blackouts in the not-too-distant future if we don’t act soon.
A recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), a Princeton, N.J.-based non-profit organization charged with monitoring America’s power system reliability, confirms that unless more resources come online, it will not be long before the need for power can no longer be met.
The predictions made by NERC shed light on the urgent need to bolster our nation’s power grid. It is no longer a question of if but when we need to build — the need is real, and the time is now.
For electric co-ops, experiencing 2.6 percent overall load growth (twice the national average), we take our responsibility of maintaining a safe, reliable and affordable supply of power seriously. We are working hard to implement a strategy that meets your needs with the right mix of energy efficiency, renewable energy and new technologies for electricity generation involving clean coal, nuclear and natural gas.
Electric co-ops are recognized industry leaders in promoting energy efficiency and wise energy use. Nearly half of all rural electric systems provide financial incentives — such as low- or no-interest loans for household improvements, leases on efficiency-related equipment and ownership or maintenance of standby generators to reduce power use when consumption spikes. Some include interactive energy-use calculators on their Web sites.
More than 40 percent offer efficiency and weatherization services, including selling and installing high-efficiency lighting systems, electric water heaters, geothermal and air-source heat pumps, insulation, and Energy Star appliances.
Simply put, the more we can do to conserve electricity and use it efficiently means fewer power plants must be built in the future.
Renewable energy, like wind and solar power, holds great promise in providing electricity. Consumer-owned electric co-ops have blazed trails when it comes to developing renewables. Today, more than 80 percent of the nation’s 900-plus electric co-ops supply electricity produced by wind, solar, hydro, biomass (including landfill gas, livestock waste, timber byproducts and crop residue) and other “green power” sources. This makes up about 11 percent of all co-op kilowatt-hour sales.
Missouri co-ops, for example, made the state’s first wind farms possible when they agreed to puchase the entire output of the Bluegrass Ridge, Cow Branch and Conception wind farms for the next 20 years. Electric cooperative-owned power plants like the one at Chamois have run experiments to determine whether new fuels like walnut hulls and other biomass hold promise as renewable fuels for generating electricity.
But renewables have some limits. Wind, for example, which has the potential to meet 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs, must overcome two main hurdles: construction of additional high-voltage transmission lines to bring generation produced at wind farms, usually located in remote rural areas, to population centers; and “intermittency” — the fact that wind only blows 30 percent to 40 percent of the time, and generally not during times of peak electricity use on hot, humid summer weekday afternoons.
Electric co-ops are heavily involved in research needed to develop better batteries to store wind and solar energy, a breakthrough that will allow these resources to become full-time sources of electricity. Additional work must take place before these batteries become viable.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are another new technology getting a boost from electric cooperative research. These vehicles, which are recharged during periods of low demand on the system, hold the potential of lowering emissions of greenhouse gases while saving finite supplies of gasoline.
All of these changes will help meet our growing demand for electricity. Yet at the end of the day, electric co-ops also need to plan for the future — which means building new power plants. Unfortunately, power plant construction costs have skyrocketed in recent years as international demand for coal and materials like steel and concrete continues to climb.
Presently, 50 percent of the nation’s electricity supply and 62 percent of electric co-op power requirements come from coal. Despite rising costs, power plants built in the near-term will burn coal more cleanly and efficiently than ever before.
Even more encouraging, concerns over coal’s contribution to climate change could be alleviated within a decade if power plants that capture carbon dioxide gas before it goes up a smokestack, compress it and then pump it deep underground for permanent storage become available. That’s a real possibility if Congress provides sufficient funding for the necessary research and development.
Nuclear energy also remains part of the solution, even though only a handful of nuclear power plants have come online in this country over the past 20 years, and none have been ordered since the 1970s. Nuclear power — which emits only clean water vapor — generates 20 percent of all electricity in the U.S. and about 15 percent of electric co-op power needs. Estimates hold that it will take 10 years to bring a single nuclear reactor online.
Providing more electricity and dealing with climate change are important challenges our country faces. Our commitment to you, as we strive to keep the lights on, will be encouraging lawmakers and regulators to seek out practical, long-term remedies to our nation’s energy problems based on new technology — solutions that will allow us to continue providing reliable and affordable power in an environmentally responsible fashion.
Electric co-ops have no magic bullet to offer — only our hard work and a commitment to your best interests. But as we have done for more than seven decades, we will continue to put you, our members, first.
Taylor is a writer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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