NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The White House goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 underscores the need for electric cooperatives to work together for diverse energy portfolios or risk reliability, generation and transmission co-op leaders said at the 2023 PowerXchange.

Eric Baker, president and CEO of Wolverine Power Cooperative in Cadillac, Michigan, and Duane Highley, CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Westminster, Colorado, discussed the real-life concerns about drastic cuts in energy resources and how co-op durability is more important than ever.

“The objective of the panel was to leave co-op leaders with a better understanding of the tradeoffs between the political aspiration to get to net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050, and the practical reality of what it takes to keep the lights on,” said Ashley Slater, NRECA vice president of regulatory affairs and moderator of the March 6 session.

“Eric and Duane connected these dots for us while articulating the inherent advantages of the co-op business models in times of great change.”

Both G&T leaders emphasized the risks of eliminating fossil fuels before technologies to support other resources are available and supply chain snarls have abated. This message must reach policymakers loud and clear, they said.

Highley noted that Tri-State, which serves cooperatives in four states, utilized fuel oil to keep its members electrified and save members money during Winter Storm Uri in 2021.

“During Storm Uri, we were able to fall back on old-fashioned fuel oil and save customers millions of dollars,” he said. “That diversity of fuel is extremely important to keeping the lights on and keeping it affordable.”

Highley noted that the latest winter reliability assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. forecast “a trainwreck coming,” with fuel supply risks and a natural gas pipeline capacity shortage that could force conservation, rolling service curtailments and power outages in several regions.

Baker said the co-op model is adaptable to deliver reliable, affordable electricity, but diverse resources are key. And renewable technologies have not advanced enough to reliably serve areas like northern Michigan, where it can be cloudy for 45 consecutive days with temperatures below zero, he said. Current battery technology can only store about four hours of energy.

Even with money for the latest technology and a flowing supply chain, “it still doesn’t work,” he said.

Baker compared energy reliability risks to a church potluck.

“You don’t bring a dish, but that’s OK, because everyone else brought extra,” he said. “But one day … no one will bring a dish, and everyone is going to go hungry.”