Meetings of the Arizona Corporation Commission are generally pretty sleepy affairs, but the one held this fall had a noticeable infusion of energy. Co-op energy.

In summer of 2022, Arizona Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s generation and transmission co-op, had asked the ACC to approve financing for additional natural gas units at its Apache Generating Station near Cochise. When commission members signaled reluctance to new fossil fuel generation, AEPCO and its members mobilized.

Over the next three months, co-op representatives across the state spoke at community meetings and used their social media channels, newsletters, annual meetings and local events to educate consumer-members about how the new units would help ensure reliable and affordable power. More than 40 community leaders and organizations filed letters of support, while about 1,200 Arizona residents signed support cards or sent emails urging the five members of the commission to approve the financing application.

On Oct. 12, dozens of supporters arrived at the ACC meeting in Phoenix, all wearing T-shirts supporting the project and Arizona electric co-ops. They packed the hearing room and spilled into an overflow room, and more than 20 got up to speak on AEPCO’s behalf.

“Our member cooperatives and our employees really did a great job of driving home to their communities that we’ll get there—we’re absolutely adding more renewable energy projects and will continue to do so—but we are going to do this as part of a responsible energy transition plan that recognizes both our obligation to maintain reliability and to keep costs affordable for our members,” says Patrick Ledger, AEPCO’s executive vice president and CEO. “Right now, that reliable source is quick-ramping, flexible, super-efficient natural gas.”

The G&Ts request was approved, 3–2.

It was a victory for Arizona co-ops and for their members.

But it was also another success in a long-term, national push by electric co-ops to make sure policymakers, the media and private citizens understand what’s at stake in what’s become an accelerating and often chaotic energy transition away from always-available generation in favor of intermittent resources such as renewables.

“Co-ops have been raising the alarm about compromising reliability by moving too quickly on any energy transition since the beginning,” says NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.

Getting the message out

Many industry analysts agree that the current energy transition began around 2009, when Congressional climate legislation and new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon dioxide emissions put a bullseye on fossil-fuel-based power plants and wind and solar generation became more economic.

It's a message that would be repeated and refreshed by co-op advocates and NRECA leaders over the ensuing decade through grassroots campaigns, lobbying efforts, testimony before legislative and regulatory panels, media outreach and member education.

In May 2015, as debate raged around the Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan, then-NRECA president Mel Coleman wrote: “We all want to preserve the health of our planet. What we’re seeking is a common-sense approach to environmental regulation, one that can accomplish its goals while also taking into account the effect such regulations can have on the cost of electric power and the reliability of power supply. … It’s all about balance. Regulations have real-world impacts.”

In August that year, Seminole Electric Cooperative CEO Lisa Johnson warned that the new regulations could force baseload generation to close too quickly to replace the lost capacity.

“Fuel diversity is critical to reliability,” she said. “All it would take is one supply disruption, one hurricane, and you would be dealing with major supply constraints and reliability issues.”

In October 2019, Matheson took this message to Capitol Hill, telling a House subcommittee that cooperatives are entrusted with “responsibly delivering affordable, reliable electricity in communities across the nation.”

“Policymakers should be mindful of this and ensure that any energy policy proposals provide long-term certainty and flexibility that maintains energy diversity for electric co-ops, protects reliability of the electric grid, and minimizes undue economic impacts for consumers—especially those in rural and persistently poor communities,” he said.

Through it all, co-ops and NRECA kept the drumbeat going on the foremost need for reliability while also embracing key aspects of the transition, including building or contracting thousands of megawatts of solar and wind energy, exploring the promise of new nuclear power technologies, advocating for hydropower and spearheading carbon capture, storage and use initiatives.

Last fall, NRECA worked with media vendor Axios to sponsor a dialogue on the future of energy with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and Matheson that underscored the need for additional reliable power generation as the country continues to electrify the economy.

The impact

The reliability message was tragically amplified when grid vulnerabilities were exposed by Winter Storm Uri, a February 2021 freeze that left millions without power in Texas for several days.

In California, which has led the nation in baseload plant closures and renewables penetration, persistent summer heat waves, out-of-commission gas plants and an overreliance on imported energy during high demand created supply shortages and forced the state’s Independent System Operator to impose service curtailments and increase the fossil fuel generation it purchases. The state is even extending operation of its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which it had planned to close in 2025.

And in November, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. again warned of reliability challenges this winter—an assessment that NRECA’s Matheson called “a clear and constant warning about the nationwide consequences of continuing a haphazard energy transition.

“This assessment paints a stark and disheartening picture of the reliability challenges facing much of the United States this winter,” he said. “As the demand for electricity risks outpacing the available supply during peak winter conditions, consumers face an inconceivable but real threat of rolling blackouts. It doesn’t have to be this way. But absent a shift in state and federal energy policy, this is a reality we will face for years to come.

A 2021 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research raised major concerns about a Biden administration goal of decarbonizing the national power grid by 2035.

“This ambitious goal will require an accelerated substitution of fossil fuel with renewable generation over the next decade,” the report stated.

David Tudor, CEO and general manager of Springfield, Missouri-based Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., said at the time that he was “alarmed” by the report.

“Companies across the electric utility industry are being forced to retire baseload power plants that are the foundation of reliable power supply, and they are not doing so on their own timetables,” he said. “Generation and storage technologies do not exist today to responsibly decarbonize our country 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2035.”

As the transition to renewable energy slowed in 2022 due to supply chain constraints, as many as 40 coal-fired power plants that were scheduled to shut down will operate longer than expected, based in part on reliability concerns. Some companies have pushed back their planned closures by up to five years.

'Far from over'

The message appears to be finding its way to the public as well. A study last March by the Pew Research Center found only 31% of Americans want to phase out fossil fuel use completely, and more than 70% think it’s likely that a major shift to renewable sources would lead to unexpected problems for the country.

The fight’s far from over, and co-ops are still engaged. The Arizona co-op members who turned out for the ACC meeting in October and others like them are now helping carry the message.

In Michigan this summer, another co-op grassroots push fought to preserve reliable electric generation.

When investor-owned Consumers Energy announced last April that it planned to close all its coal-fired power plants by 2025—a loss of 1,875 MW of generation up to 15 years earlier than planned—Wolverine Power Cooperative, a part owner of one of the facilities, publicly opposed the closures over concerns about reliability.

Wolverine and the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association reached out to NRECA’s grassroots advocacy initiative Voices for Cooperative Power for help organizing members to raise the alarm. The engagement resulted in nearly 8,000 people sending over 44,000 letters to the Michigan Public Service Commission, the governor and state legislators.

“We believe that affordable and reliable power is crucial to all co-op member-owners,” says Casey Clark, MECA’s director of marketing and communications. “We collaborated closely with our member cooperatives on a coordinated campaign involving social media, email, postcards, digital ads and phone calls to focus more legislative and regulatory attention on the issue.”

In the end, the MPSC voted to approve Consumers Energy’s closure plan, but the grassroots effort is credited with starting a crucial conversation about electric reliability throughout Michigan.

Matheson says frequent contact with lawmakers and policymakers on both sides of the aisle will be the key to elevating reliability not just in Washington, D.C., but across the country.

“Electric cooperatives have worked to make sure policymakers, both at the federal and state level, understand that policy decisions are going to have an impact on the grid,” he said. “We want to make sure they understand that reliability should be a key focus in all of their policy recommendations.”

Matheson added that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in 2021 and 2022 “give us new tools, more flexibility, more investment capacity for our systems. If we project out 10, 20, 30 years from now, people are going to look back at these two pieces of legislation as having tremendous significance in terms of building out a more reliable electric grid.”