The Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan can provide much-needed flexibility for America’s electric cooperatives, the not-for-profit utilities that power 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.
Now the EPA, informed by public comment, must work to develop a common-sense replacement plan. The preferred approach is for the agency to write a replacement rule that focuses on improvements that can be achieved by a variety of possible measures at individual power plants. This “inside the fence” approach would comply with decades of policy precedent, result in greater regulatory certainty for electric cooperatives and other energy providers, and reduce the likelihood of protracted litigation.
As the EPA develops a new approach to regulating carbon dioxide, the framework must meet a number of criteria. First, it must be consistent with the EPA’s decades-long practice that technological or operational performance standards can be implemented at the power plant. Second, it must protect reliability of the energy supply to consumers and businesses. It must minimize undue economic impact for consumers. And finally, it must provide electric cooperatives with long-term regulatory clarity and certainty.
Electric co-ops depend on a diverse fuel mix to meet the energy needs of their 42 million members, protect reliability of the energy system and ensure consumer affordability. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the ideal electric generation portfolio for nearly 950 co-ops across America. Rather, each cooperative makes strategic long-term investments in energy sources, efficiency programs and other measures that make the most sense for them.
Co-op members are asking for more from their electricity providers. As member-owned, not-for-profit organizations, electric cooperatives are driven by a desire to meet and exceed their members’ expectations. EPA can help co-ops achieve that mission by replacing the Clean Power Plan with a sound regulation that is consistent with the Clean Air Act.
This flexibility to pursue a diverse fuel mix for power generation will allow co-ops to respond to local and regional factors and member preferences while ensuring affordable and reliable power.
Past federal policy pushed cooperatives away from natural gas use for electricity and toward developing coal-based electric generation. In many cases, co-op members are still paying for those facilities — and for pollution control measures that were added in subsequent years due to additional federal policies. Those investments must be protected. So too must the role of 24/7 power, balanced with renewable energy sources that are intermittent
Electric cooperatives are dedicated to a healthy environment, building vibrant rural communities and prioritizing the needs of their members. These factors, along with energy market forces, are driving co-ops to further diversify their electric generating portfolio. That’s why coal-fired electric generation at electric cooperatives has declined by nine percent since 2014. And why co-ops today use five times more solar energy than just two years ago, leading them to become the most prolific utility-builders of community solar.
Market forces and technological innovations have led to reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector, and electric co-ops are reducing their carbon footprint. In fact, since 2005, co-ops have increased electric generation by 15 million megawatt-hours while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 10 percent.
We look forward to working with the president, Congress, and other stakeholders to promote the long-term stability of affordable and reliable power for the Americans who depend on an electric cooperative to keep the lights on. The Clean Power Plan’s replacement must provide regulatory certainty to make long-term decisions and the flexibility to shape our future energy system based on diverse supply and efficiency options.
Jim Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and a former seven-term member of Congress from Utah.
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