If you have detected a shift in the national debate on climate change, you would be correct. The focus in the U.S. Congress is not on whether climate change is a problem, but what to do about it and when.
As the U. S. Congress moves aggressively on legislation to curb greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide, or CO2 — legislators cannot ignore the reality of energy supply and demand.
The need for a reality-based approach is particularly important for us in the electric cooperative industry, because, according to the experts, the surplus generating capacity that was built up over the years has now run out. In the next 10 to 15 years, we need to increase the generating capacity we own and operate by 50% just to meet projected growth in co-op service areas. And coal is the most plentiful and affordable source of fuel today. New policies regarding coal-based generation at the state and federal levels will have a dramatic effect on our power production and electric rates.
Some folks tout renewable energy as the answer to reducing CO2 emissions as well as postponing or barring power plant construction. Others urge reducing demand through energy efficiency programs. Electric Co-ops have long embraced both renewable resources and energy-efficiency programs. These options are only part of the solution, however. Unfortunately, there is no single, inexpensive, quick-fix solution, but we must commit ourselves to getting the job done.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an organization of scientists and electrical engineers, has offered a seven-part strategy. To achieve significant CO2 reductions by 2030, EPRI says we will need to employ energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, new coal technology, carbon capture technology, plug-in hybrid vehicles and distributed generation.
According to EPRI, new technologies such as carbon capture and storage are not yet available and will require an investment of billions of dollars by Congress to become reality anytime soon. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study concludes that widespread application of such technology is more than a decade away.
Those investment and time line projections seem at odds with the current congressional mind set. There is a reality gap in Washington and across the country on how and when to achieve these goals. We must close this reality gap between imaginary quick-fix solutions and realistic possibilities to reduce CO2 emissions. It will take a lot of straight talk to get the Congress to recognize the effort will be neither easy nor cheap.
As member-owners of your electric cooperative, you can be assured that we are doing everything possible to look out for your interests. Your local co-op and the network of nearly 1,000 co-ops nationwide have two primary concerns as this debate unfolds. First to keep the lights on. Second, we will do everything we can to minimize rate increases that will arise as new power plants are built and new environmental regulations add to the cost of power.
We are telling the Congress that any plan to reduce man-made CO2 emissions should cover emissions from all sectors of the economy, not simply electricity generation. Any climate change proposal should maintain fuel diversity, allowing a variety of fuel sources, including coal and nuclear generation, to meet the energy and economic needs of the country.
America's electric co-ops have pledged to work with the Congress on climate change legislation. The nation needs sound, responsible legislation. Such legislation should provide incentives to increase efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources. Responsible legislation will fully fund research to hasten the development of needed technology. And good legislation will balance the electric bills of consumers, the health of the economy, and the needs of the environment.
Glenn English, CEO, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association