Central Electric Power Cooperative is reshaping its business plan to help meet the current and future energy needs of its 20 distribution co-op members in South Carolina.

The generation and transmission cooperative is using long-term power purchase contracts, developing renewable energy projects, upgrading its demand response programs and helping member co-ops design rate plans that give consumers more control over how and when they use electricity.

“We are positioning ourselves as an aggregator to help meet the wholesale power needs of our 20 member cooperatives,” said Robert Hochstetler, president and CEO of the Columbia-based G&T.

“We’re focusing our investments on smaller projects like utility-scale solar and battery storage and looking at purchase power agreements, which don’t include large investments in new baseload generation.”

Those changes also include supporting efforts by its state-owned wholesale power supplier, Santee Cooper, to diversify its portfolio with the acquisition of the Cherokee Cogeneration Partners facility in Gaffney, South Carolina. An agreement to share output from the 98-megawatt natural-gas-based facility was finalized in November, clearing the way for the $17 million purchase. The 25-year-old plant previously served Santee Cooper under a power purchase agreement.

“As we performed our due diligence with Santee Cooper, it became clear this resource would provide an immediate boost to the reliability of our system while also helping to keep electric rates competitive,” said Hochstetler.

The G&T’s directors cited several benefits, including a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to coal generation and opportunities to control wholesale power costs. They also examined improvements to extend the plant’s productive life and considered Santee Cooper’s tax-exempt status as a factor controlling overall wholesale power costs.

“It takes a long time to build power plants,” said Cole Price, Central Electric’s senior vice president of member services. ‘We can keep our balance sheet tighter and smaller by investing in Santee Cooper projects through partnerships.”

Although Central Electric’s member co-ops avoided major disruptions during Winter Storm Elliott last December, an increase in extreme weather events remains a concern. The G&T is also preparing for the uncertain impact on near-term electricity demand as more consumers and businesses add electric vehicle charging to their systems.

Central Electric is pursuing development of tools designed to add residential solar and energy storage. It has also upgraded its demand response program with a goal of increasing its overall peak-shaving ability from the current 125 MW to as much as 300 MW.

New features now available or under development will allow consumers to use various devices to control HVAC systems, water heaters and irrigation and to shift the timing of power-intensive activities like EV charging outside of peak demand periods.

“Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative in Lexington has developed a three-part rate that allows members to look at costs for vehicle charging at different times. Their members can select the charging period that best fits their needs at a cost they are willing to pay,” said Price. “We've run EV-related pilots and we're developing a full-blown program to roll that out [to our other member co-ops]. We know there's going to be newer technology, and we want to be positioned to give co-op members that flexibility.”

Central Electric authorized development of up to 5 MW of community solar at 21 sites proposed by its member co-ops. The G&T also has a power purchase agreement for 150 MW of utility-scale, investor-owned solar in South Carolina’s Orangeburg County commissioned this year. The co-op also buys solar output from Volvo, which has solar arrays designed to produce 8.5 MW of power in Ridgeville.

“A lot of our focus is on partnerships and contractual opportunities in South Carolina or surrounding states,” said Hochstetler. “These projects are not only an important part of our nation’s changing energy dynamic, they are also key to economic growth in the state, and offer achievable approaches to meeting growing demand in a timeframe that saves co-ops money and helps keep power reliably flowing to their members.”