Are electric co-ops switching off climate change?

By Seth Heald

You’d hope that by 2015 America’s rural electric cooperatives would have faced up to the fact that climate change is requiring major changes in their industry. Sure there are challenges to be met as we move to cleaner energy, but there are also great opportunities to save co-op member-owners’ money with solar and increased efficiency. Unfortunately, two recent events suggest America’s electric co-ops, including mine — Rappahannock Electric Cooperative — are stuck in the past.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued its Clean Power Plan (CPP), the first national regulations to require reductions in climate-altering carbon-dioxide emissions from electric power plants. The CPP was long overdue — the EPA dragged its feet on addressing carbon pollution in the first decade of this century. A dozen states had to sue the agency to force it to act on climate. That led to a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively telling the EPA it was required by law to implement rules to reduce carbon pollution.

After that the agency worked carefully, albeit slowly, to do that. The EPA’s delay in implementing carbon-reduction measures has cost America valuable time in the race to avert a climate crisis. So I and many others cheered this past July, seven years after the Supreme Court’s decision, when the CPP was finally issued. Of course the CPP won’t solve climate change by itself, but it’s an important, modest first step.

In mid-August, a couple of weeks after the Clean Power Plan came out, I attended Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s (REC) annual membership meeting. In his speech to some 100 co-op members, CEO Kent D. Farmer talked about what he saw as the two big issues facing the electric-power industry. Somehow he managed not to mention climate change even once. In Farmer’s telling, the big two issues facing the industry are (1) technology and (2) EPA regulations. It seems that REC doesn’t think climate change is the big issue — the big issue is just the EPA.

I might have written that off as some kind of oversight, but less than two weeks later, I and thousands of other electric co-op members across the country received an email from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) — the national trade and lobbying group to which most U.S. electric co-ops (including REC) belong. NRECA’s email, purporting to speak on behalf of “America’s Electric Cooperatives,” asked me as a co-op member to write President Obama urging him to delay implementing the CPP “for years to come.” How many times did NRECA’s message mention climate change or global warming, which is the whole point of the CPP? Not once.

Is NRECA concerned about the climate impact of additional years of delay in making carbon-pollution reductions? Clearly not. Does NRECA know that rural Americans will be greatly harmed by our warming climate? Apparently not. Does the powerful lobbying group think all will be well if we just further delay taking climate action for years on end? It seems so.

Almost five years ago I wrote in this newspaper about REC and other Virginia electric co-ops promoting climate-science denial. Electric co-ops may no longer be denying climate change outright, but they still can’t bring themselves to mention it. That’s another form of denial. The need to address climate change will transform the electric-power industry in the next two decades. Climate is not a problem that will go away if we ignore it.

Electric cooperatives like REC were established with government help in the Great Depression to electrify rural areas that investor-owned utilities wouldn’t serve. Co-ops receive substantial federal tax breaks, in part because their original mission included educating customer-owners about electricity. But when it comes to educating their members today about the realities of climate change and its effects on the future of electric power, too many cooperatives, and their lobbying shop, NRECA, are asleep at the switch.

REC’s annual meetings always begin with a prayer. Perhaps someday soon NRECA and U.S. electric cooperative leaders will be inspired by Pope Francis’s prayer at the end of his new climate-change encyclical, Laudato Si’: “Enlighten those who possess power and money, that they may avoid the sin of indifference.”

Seth Heald, of Rixeyville, a retired lawyer, is a member of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and a student in the Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University. He serves as volunteer vice chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

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