SAN ANTONIO, Texas—As massive amounts of renewables and distributed energy resources are set to come online and more dispatchable generation to meet demand is expected to exit the grid, electric cooperatives are rethinking how to maintain reliability for their members, a panel of co-op leaders said at 2024 PowerXchange.

Some 2,000 gigawatts of renewable generation is queued for interconnection nationwide in the next 10 years, said NRECA Vice President for Integrated Grid Venkat Banunarayanan at a March 4 breakout session. But those new sources won't add much overall capacity if they’re paired with continuing shutdowns of coal and gas plants.

“What happens in one part of grid affects the rest of grid,” he said. “That puts a lot of pressure on the infrastructure. How do we manage that?”

Clif Lange, general manager of South Texas Electric Cooperative, said planning problems are being compounded by expected increases in electricity demand. The Nursery-based generation and transmission co-op’s latest 25-year demand forecast is considerably higher than prior ones.

“We have a problem,” he said. “We don’t have enough dispatchable generation to meet load growth.”

STEC, he noted, is working with its board on resource planning to address population growth and higher demand as well as extreme weather and energy policy shifts.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas expects to see an additional 30 gigawatts of mostly solar over the next two years. But, Lange said, the greatest need will be for more dispatchable power as large, 24/7 loads like data centers and cryptocurrency operations set up shop.

“We need resource diversity,” said Lange. “It makes sense to have our own resources and control cost for members.”

He added that a “growing appetite” for behind-the-meter generation will provide “a lot of opportunity for a G&T to work with members.”

Forecasts for Brighton, Colorado-based United Power show the co-op’s load will double by the end of the decade. Multiple data centers, a battery center and an Amazon charging depot for 400 electric delivery vehicles are slated to open.

“We can’t possibly build enough generation and transmission in time,” said CEO Mark A. Gabriel. “We have to figure out how to meet the growing demands of our members. How do we manage resiliency and reliability right now?”

Meanwhile, members are buying EVs, installing rooftop solar and exploring battery storage systems. This desire for “hyper-localization” of energy supplies comes as there is “a dramatic decrease in centralized generation” nationwide, he said. “This will happen across the country from small co-ops to the largest co-op, this societal shift we’re seeing.”

Gabriel sees a future where many distribution co-ops will serve more as a network provider for their members but warned that competition for control of member DER may prove fierce as computer chip and artificial intelligence developers enter the energy arena.

“If we can’t control DER, they will,” he said.

Minnkota Power Cooperative’s generation portfolio includes 55% coal. The Grand Forks, North Dakota-based G&T is in its final development phase of Project Tundra, the largest proposed carbon-dioxide capture and storage facility in the country.

“If we can make CCS work, that provides an opportunity to preserve reliable generation while also lowering emissions,” said Mac McLennan, Minnkota’s president and CEO.

In a region where temperatures can run between 100 degrees in the summer to 40 below freezing in the winter, renewables can’t always meet demand even at 100% capacity, he said.

Without assurances on reliability, members may pursue more rooftop solar or other DER. “The challenge is how to coordinate it in a way that has value for reliability,” McLennan said.

With new federal funding for energy technologies, power sector investments are reaching heights not seen since the 1970s, he said, but “no single technology is going to address” growing demand and sustain reliability by itself.

“Go home and think about what your portfolio looks like,” McLennan said. “We are all going to pursue very different paths for resilience based on what is available today.”