Letter: REC bases future on coal

Customers of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, the electric utility that serves many people in this area, are not just customers. They’re also members and owners of the cooperative, much like a stockholder partly owns a corporation. As REC’s CEO, Kent Farmer, told members at the REC annual meeting near Fredericksburg in August, “we work for you.”

The rural electric cooperative system was formed in the 1930s to bring electricity to all Americans. Since its inception, education has been an integral component of the rural-cooperative system. REC frequently acknowledges its duty to educate its members on the safe and wise use of electricity, citing education as one of the seven “cooperative principles” the co-op aspires to observe. The REC member magazine Cooperative Living is one of REC’s primary educational conduits to members.

So you might think REC members could turn to Cooperative Living for accurate information about national energy policy, issues in the energy industry, and related problems like climate change. But despite the fact that every major scientific body acknowledges that climate change is man-made and presents a serious threat to humankind, Cooperative Living takes a different view. In my reading of it over the past two years, I’ve seen only articles questioning the existence or gravity of climate change. It seems that comments urging prompt action on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels are relegated to short letters to the editor.

Cooperative Living, whose funding presumably comes indirectly in part from REC members’ electric bills, even inserted three postage-paid cards in its May 2010 issue for readers to send to their members of Congress, urging them to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases, which are known to cause climate change. There were no corresponding cards for readers who think the EPA ought to act now.

Then in October, Cooperative Living devoted a full-page column to a commentator with no climate-science expertise who dismissed all scientific research that shows that prompt action is needed to address climate change. He claims that “government” largely funds climate research, and so climate scientists therefore all somehow have “a conflict of interest.” Without citing a single source, the commentator concludes that it will take decades before we see any serious consequences from climate change.

Why is this kind of absurd reasoning given a prominent position while any discussion of the serious reality of climate change is relegated to letters to the editor? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that REC and the wholesale power supplier it partly owns, the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), simply want to wish away the reality of climate change. So much for education as a “cooperative principle.”

REC and ODEC’s seeming climate-change denial could also be related to their plans to build the largest coal-fired electric power plant in Virginia — the proposed $5 billion-plus Cypress Creek generating facility in Surry County, near Williamsburg. REC is contractually bound to buy substantially all its power from ODEC for more than 43 years. So if the Cypress Creek plant is built, REC would be committing to buying coal-fired electricity for a very long time. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of all fuels used to generate electricity, so it’s clear that this is not a good long-term plan, both economically and environmentally.

Did the REC board of directors give any serious thought to whether committing to coal for 43 years is a good idea? It’s hard to say, since board meetings aren’t open to members and the board doesn’t publish its meeting minutes. But nothing in the materials that REC puts on its website or distributes to its member-owners suggests that the board has even thought about the economic risks of committing to coal for the next 43 years. REC members should be concerned that their cooperative is heading down a dangerous path that could lead to high costs for many years.

Instead, REC and ODEC should work harder on improving efficiency and relying more on renewable-energy alternatives like wind. Virginia has great potential for offshore wind power. Northrup Grumman and Google recently announced huge investments in wind power off the Virginia coast. Why aren’t REC and ODEC involved in this? ODEC buys a small amount of wind power from Pennsylvania, but has no announced plans to buy any offshore wind power or any other Virginia wind power.

REC and ODEC should stop wasting members’ money challenging the world’s scientific community, and instead focus their efforts on energy efficiency and clean renewable-energy sources. Their “cooperative principles” demand no less.

Seth Heald

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