NASHVILLE, Tenn.—It’s more crucial than ever for electric cooperatives to engage with policymakers as the U.S. government moves to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, leaders of generation and transmission co-ops said Monday at PowerXchange.

“We don’t have any choice but to engage,” said Jeff Bowman, president and CEO of Cooperative Energy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during a breakout session on the energy transition. “We need to be the truthtellers.”

The message to lawmakers and federal agencies should be that co-ops are moving away from fossil fuels, but the timeline the government is setting is too fast, said Donna Walker, president and CEO of Hoosier Energy Rural Electric Cooperative in Bloomington, Indiana.

The Biden administration has set a goal of achieving a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.

“I believe we are headed toward decarbonization,” said Walker, whose co-op is retiring its coal-fired power plant next year. “Can we do it? Yes. Can we do it on this timeline? I don’t think so.”

Today’s technology is not sufficient to achieve an energy transition without threatening the reliability and affordability of the electricity that co-ops provide, she said.

“My fear is that the government will go too fast without the technology behind it and there will be a long, hard road to correct it,” Walker said.

Policymakers can sometimes take action that leads to unintended consequences, said Patrick Ledger, CEO of Arizona G&T Cooperatives. He said recent decisions have made natural gas less competitive with coal as a fuel source, leading to an increase in coal use by the co-op this year after it had been declining.

“The impacts on lower-income ratepayers is something that I don’t think policymakers fully understand,” he said. “It’s really about the pace of change, not so much that we’re anti-change.”

It’s important for co-ops to tell their stories directly to lawmakers and other government officials, Bowman said. Cooperative Energy was able to change the anti-co-op attitude of a state public utilities commissioner in frequent discussions describing how policy decisions were affecting consumers, he said.

“Over time, sitting down with this individual, he’s actually a champion now for co-ops in the state,” Bowman said. “We have that obligation to keep pressing, because eventually we’re going to have some success.”

Pat O’Loughlin, president and CEO of Buckeye Power and Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, said co-ops can offer practical solutions to policymakers. He was recently able to talk to officials at the Environmental Protection Agency about co-op concerns as part of a meeting arranged by NRECA.

“It was an opportunity to really tell our story,” he said. “They heard us. I don’t know if we changed hearts and minds, but the more consistent we can be with our stories, the greater the chance that our message will get through.”

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