FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS, Tony Campbell has been writing to President Joe Biden, pleading on behalf of Kentucky electric co-op consumer-members for the U.S. government to rethink policies that undermine the reliability and affordability of electric service.
In late December, when electric utilities across the country struggled to meet record demand triggered by sustained subzero temperatures, Campbell’s repeated warnings leapt off the page, now describing a real-world crisis.
In each of his six letters to the White House, Campbell, the president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Cooperative, which serves 16 member-owned cooperatives in the state, has stressed the life-or-death consequences of the U.S. prematurely shutting down traditional power plants while allocating hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to incentivize unreliable alternatives.
“The threat is that, without proper planning, our grid operators could find themselves without enough resources to serve power demand, leading to rolling blackouts,” Campbell warned in February 2021.
In late December, that’s exactly what happened. To prevent a catastrophic system failure that could have led to prolonged power outages, local power companies in more than a dozen states implemented emergency plans to reduce the energy load. Utilities asked account holders to cut back on unnecessary power use and some had to take the extraordinary step of creating short, temporary power outages.
Announcing a thorough review, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves five member-owned cooperatives in Kentucky, is pledging to share what they learn, “and—more importantly—the corrective actions we take in the weeks ahead to ensure we are prepared to manage significant events in the future.”
The renewables dilemma
Because electricity is generated at the same time it is used, the electric grid needs to be built to meet peak demand, such as during the extreme cold temperatures this past December.
Although solar panels and wind turbines generate electricity, they work only when the weather cooperates. Meanwhile, plants powered by coal, natural gas and nuclear, are “dispatchable,” meaning they can generally respond quickly to electricity demands. But the retirement of reliable coal and nuclear plants has forced utilities to rely heavily on natural gas to fill the gaps when wind and solar are not available. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not expanded its gas pipelines to keep pace with this growing reliance, and there is rising worldwide demand for U.S. natural gas, leading to extreme price swings along with declining reliability.
In his letters to the White House, Campbell politely corrects rampant misinformation that has been used to rush the transition to solar and wind resources.
“The rapid expansion of renewable capacity creates the façade that America has plenty of surplus energy for emergencies,” Campbell wrote President Biden in November 2021. “However, the U.S. is rapidly painting itself into a corner where there are few options to provide reliable, affordable energy when extreme situations arise.”
The 24/7 reliability of renewables depends on developing dependable, cost-effective utility-scale batteries that can be mass-produced, he wrote. Despite promising advances, that technology is years or perhaps decades away, Campbell said.
Consumers pay the bill
In addition to his White House letters, Campbell collaborates with Big Rivers Electric Corporation President and CEO Bob Berry on op-eds that speak up for Kentucky electric consumers. (Big Rivers Electric serves three member-owned Kentucky co-ops.) In July, they explained how Kentucky electric ratepayers are paying the price for policies that are driving coal and nuclear plants into retirement.
“The high costs they are experiencing are largely the result of years of unsound government energy policies, which have cut options to fuel reliable energy,” the co-op leaders wrote in July. “U.S. electricity producers have been forced to depend more on natural gas and must compete against foreign nations for our domestic natural gas supplies.”
Campbell hand-delivered five of the letters to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm when she visited EKPC’s 60-acre Cooperative Solar Farm in March.
Commited to advocating for local co-op consumer-members, he and Kentucky’s electric cooperatives are speaking up.
“I understand the importance of reducing carbon emissions to address the effects of climate change,” Campbell wrote. “But make no mistake, there will be disastrous consequences if we do so in a manner that continues to make the electric grid vulnerable to widespread outages during extreme temperatures and inflates the price of electricity, making it unaffordable for our most vulnerable populations—the poor and the elderly.”