NRECA Stands Up

Coal ash, the CPP, and rural internet access test the meaning of ‘co-op’

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association plays an important role in utilities distribution and grid modernization across the country. With a recently appointed CEO, and the status of the Clean Power Plan in limbo, NRECA feels the time is now for them to step up and make sure its needs are addressed and its voices heard.

NRECA’s activity of late covers a wide flank. Everything at stake stresses the urgency of equalizing energy distribution in rural areas of the country. New NRECA CEO (and former Utah senator) Jim Matheson traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak on behalf of the organization in front of Congress. He made a concerted effort to support coal ash provisions, which can be used as a valuable energy source through regulated recycling methods. The Senate approved coal ash regulations on September 19th, to NRECA applause. The co-op, as a whole, has also highlighted what it sees as the negatives to implementation of the Clean Power Plan and renewable energy infrastructure in general. Lastly (for now), NRECA has publicly called for more even distribution of internet access throughout rural areas of the country.

Senate approval of coal ash provisions is a step for NRECA, but not a victory. Coal ash was declared nonhazardous waste by the EPA in late 2014. However, electricity co-ops have sought specificity, and many of them got outlines of it from the Senate on Monday. The next step is to advance the provisions through the House, as well. “These provisions inject some greatly needed certainty into the regulation of coal ash, much of which is recycled to provide tremendous economic and environmental benefits,” Matheson said. “By giving state agencies the authority to enforce federal coal ash regulations, the bill provides increased certainty surrounding the application of the regulations and also limits litigation, which is important to their safe management and continued beneficial use.”

Where there’s coal ash—in today’s energy dialogue—there’s conversation of renewable energy sources; usually in the form of opposition. That isn’t entirely the stance NRECA is trying to take. The organization is making it clear that it understands the importance of regulating carbon emissions, but that transitions have to be considered circumstantially. Opposition isn’t to renewable energy itself, but to the stipulations of the Clean Power Plan, asserted Mel Coleman, president of NRECA’s board of directors, during a speech in his home state of Arkansas on September 6 (more on this speech in a moment). Coleman argued what many others in electrical co-ops nationwide have since the CPP’s details have become clearer over the past few years: that many rural communities are entrenched in coal usage and need more than the time allotted to transition to renewables.

Also, Coleman said, that transition could create job loss if not done delicately and with respective attention to these areas, many of which include middle-class citizens. “Power plants are not short-term investments,” Coleman said. “With maintenance and upgrades for the latest technology, the useful life for a power plant extends many decades. Upgrades are typically financed by long-term debt. It could be years before those debts are paid off. To retire a plant while it still has a mortgage will effectively force those co-ops members to pay for that same power twice.” He cited a NRECA study which declares that a 10% increase in electricity prices as a result of CPP compliance would cause annual job losses of 360,000 between 2020 and 2040 in areas served by co-ops. The study estimates a $1 trillion hit to GDP by 2040.

“Our concern is the person on the other side of the meter,” he said. “One of the arguments used by supporters of the [CPP] is that the cost to shut down coal-fired power plants will be absorbed by the [plant owners] and their Wall Street investors. Well, that may be true for the investor-owned, but that’s not true for co-ops. The problem is, the owners of our company are not a bunch of faceless Wall Street investors. They’re farmers and ranchers and teachers and veterans and retirees.”—Mel Coleman, President, NRECA Board of Directors; CEO, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative.

Other examples of this span the entire country, in coal-dependent places like North Dakota, where opposition to the CPP revolves mainly on its scarcity of time and flexibility. As Politico Pro’s Esther Whieldon reported Monday, many electrical co-ops would like to expand their renewable portfolios, but face “restrictive supply contracts that can last 40 years or more often lock them into fossil fuels for decades.” Some of the rural utilities, as touched on above, must be constantly wary of “institutional resistance to policies that can be seen as anti-coal.” Matheson seems determined to make things work in his new position. “We have a number of our members who are in a number of different circumstances,” he said. “It’s not our job to prefer one technology over another…it’s our job to make sure our members have the ability to make the best possible decisions, provide the best possible information to their consumers.” Now is the time for the co-ops to take their stand, as the stay that has been put on the Clean Power Plan since February will re-commence with oral arguments scheduled before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for Sept. 27.

Coleman made another key address during his speech in Arkansas September 6th—one that people in cities may be completely blind to—rural areas still need thorough infrastructure for internet access. Using a historical analogy of the influence co-ops had installing electricity during the Great Depression, Coleman stressed the benefits of internet being readily available both for citizens of rural communities and prospective businesses considering moving there.

“There are parallels between broadband today and the lack of electricity 80 years ago,” Coleman said during the speech, given at the Clinton School of Public Service. “Reliable, high-speed internet access is critical for attracting new employers to small communities,” Coleman said. “What employer would want to set up in a community where you’re getting 3 or 5 or 10 megabits a second? [Rural communities] are in desperate need of an economic boost. Think what it could do for education, health care and, yes, for all the Amazon shoppers.”

With plenty to be resolved, and seemingly so little time to do it, working to find a happy medium appears more crucial than ever. The word co-op still does stand for cooperation, after all.

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