Electric cooperatives are defining our own future. North Carolina’s electric co-ops, along with other utilities, consumers and policymakers from several states, are moving forward with plans for a low-carbon future as federal energy policy and regulations remain unclear. At least eight states have passed legislation targeting 100 percent renewable or carbon-free electricity. And more states, including North Carolina, have set similar goals through executive orders or plans.
We are well-positioned for this transition, in part due to planning and good fortune. By leveraging existing low-carbon generation, investing in new resources and coordinating new energy tech across the grid — all while staying focused on our commitment to our members — we will build a brighter future for all.
We’ve spent the past decade reducing our dependence on carbon-intensive generation. As a result, our current fuel mix is more than 60 percent carbon free. Coal-fired generation makes up 5 percent of our portfolio (compared with the national average of 13 percent), and that power is purchased from other generators. More than half of our power comes from carbon-free nuclear generation, an extremely reliable, safe and affordable source of electricity.
And that last part — affordability— is critical. Electric cooperatives are committed to delivering reliable power at the lowest possible cost to our members. We are owned by our members, and their interests form the bedrock of all future planning. So starting with our already strong and diverse fuel mix, we must move forward toward a brighter future strategically, with cost, reliability and resiliency at the forefront.
But our plans are no less bold: We have set a target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. By 2050, we plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Emissions-free nuclear power will continue to play a critical role, as well as existing natural gas-fired plants and new advanced natural gas generation that can be dispatched quickly, day or night, when other renewable sources of generation may not be available.
The ‘virtual’ power plant
North Carolina’s electric cooperatives are also testing and evaluating new technology that will help make our sustainability goals a reality. You may be familiar with community solar, which allows members to subscribe to the energy output from solar panels without being responsible for the upkeep. NC co-ops currently maintain 18 community solar farms around the state. Solar is also being used in microgrid applications at both residential and agricultural sites (Learn more about neighborhood microgrids.).
We’re also finding new ways to coordinate consumer-based resources to create a “virtual power plant.” Electric co-ops are able to leverage thousands of resources across the state — including community solar, microgrids, energy storage, and even certain smart thermostats and water heaters — to dispatch generation when it’s needed and trim electricity use during times of peak demand. This coordination ensures everything is working together to deliver the most possible value to all cooperative members.
In addition to the resources I’ve discussed, more advanced technology is under consideration industry wide. This includes expanded energy storage applications, as well as advanced generation such as power plants incorporating carbon capture and storage, and even small, modular nuclear reactors, which could be a safe and cost-effective way to build out new, emissions-free generation close to where power is needed.
These are exciting times. But perhaps most exciting about these plans is that our commitment to members and communities will continue to be woven into everything we do.
Yes, we are developing innovative ways to generate and deliver power to our members. But we are also finding new ways to help our members thrive, facilitating economic development loans and grants, drawing new businesses to communities, and supporting education from kindergarten through college.
Our future is bright. We will continue to develop new ways to deliver reliable, affordable power to our members’ homes. We will support and integrate consumer technology to bring more convenience and energy efficiency into our members’ lives.
And we will never lose sight of the fact that the brightest parts of our future are the people and communities we serve.
Joe Brannan is the executive vice president and CEO of North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. Learn more about the ways our state’s electric cooperatives are working to build a brighter future for co-op members and communities across rural North Carolina through sustainability, innovation and community enrichment in the new Brighter Future section of our website.