SAN ANTONIO, Texas—After enduring unprecedented rolling power curtailments, electric cooperative leaders from Tennessee and Arkansas offered key advice at NRECA PowerXchange on how to communicate with members amid increasing threats to reliability.

“We have to communicate with members as clearly as we can,” said Chris Jones, president and CEO of Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp., the largest electric co-op in the state and second-largest in the country.

“It comes down to accountability,” said Buddy Hasten, president and CEO of Little Rock-based Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. and Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. “The only way to solve problems is to be real.”

In late December 2022, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which supplies power to co-ops in the region, suddenly called for load curtailments of 5% to 10% as demand for electricity hit a historic peak during Winter Storm Elliott.

“There was a state of disbelief,” said Jones. “It caught us all off guard.”

Murfreesboro-based MTE successfully navigated TVA’s initial request, but then there was another call to cut load on Christmas Eve. “It was painful,” he said.

When Winter Storm Uri tore across the South in February 2021, AECC had just 10 minutes to respond to MISO’s request to implement rolling blackouts for 45 minutes to an hour, Hasten said.

“There was no time to tell members,” he said. “It was a really traumatic event.”

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. has identified public policy as a key risk to reliability, said NRECA Senior Director of Media and Public Relations Stephen Bell, who moderated the March 4 discussion.

NRECA has raised the issue in Washington, D.C., and the media, spotlighting reliability threats posed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed power plant rule, a proposal to breach the Snake River dams and the Department of Energy’s revision to transformer efficiency standards, Bell said.

“Communicating with members is particularly important today,” he said. “Electric co-ops are trusted in their communities— and they have consistently been able to keep the lights on and power flowing—but reliability is under threat.”

So how can electric co-ops prepare their members?

Jones and Hasten encouraged co-ops to talk to members about growing threats to reliability and what it means for them.

“We can’t let the fear of criticism keep us from telling the truth in this very important situation,” said Jones. “The beauty of who co-ops are is our members own us. If we can educate them—if our members understand the issue—we have a huge advantage.”

After Uri, AECC and Arkansas’ electric cooperatives launched a “Balance of Power” campaign with an animated logo displaying its energy portfolio and blitzed the media with information and commercials stressing the need for a balance of intermittent and baseload generation. Materials for distribution co-ops help educate consumers and explain reliability challenges, such as the impending loss of 1,200 megawatts of always-available generation in 2028 and 2030. That scenario is creating a “pressure-cooker about what to do” to keep the lights on, Hasten said.

The campaign’s goal is to educate members so “as we work together as a co-op system, we will make good decisions,” he said. “While our efforts are ongoing, we will continue to push our message.”

“We have an opportunity together as co-ops to create a new type of conversation we can have with our members,” added Jones. “We can learn to increase the energy IQ of our members. That is a challenge we should embrace.”

View resources from NRECA’s Straight Talk on communicating power curtailments.