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  • Asking the Experts: Powering the Power Grid

  • Asking the Experts: Powering the Power Grid

    Asking the Experts: Powering the Power Grid

    As winter approaches and the debate continues on regarding the best approach to powering a future electric grid, we sat down with Marshal Albright of Cass County Electric to learn more about what role fossil fuels and renewable energy have in our power supply, and the future of electric vehicles. 

    Marshal Albright, President/CEO, Cass County Electric Cooperative
    Cass County Electric utilizes various power sources. How do these compare in terms of cost and reliability?  
    Of the various energy sources that supply power to the regional transmission grid, coal, natural gas and nuclear are the most reliable because they can be scheduled to operate as needed. Annually we receive about 40% of the rated capacity from wind energy. “Remember, we need power 100% of the time… California is moving away from fossil-fuel baseload sources (i.e., coal), and toward more renewable energies (i.e., wind and solar), and at times, they have had to implement rolling blackouts to keep their grid from collapsing.”
    Looking at the production cost, both coal and natural gas are similar, while wind energy is at a lower price because of massive federal subsidies (i.e., production tax credit). From 2008-2019 the PTC for wind energy was $61.9 billion and is projected to cost taxpayers another $13 billion from 2020-2023. “Renewables are often added as an energy source so the developer can harvest the federal tax credit and not always because we need more energy.”

    Can renewable energy sources be considered a real alternative?
    Currently, 34% of Cass County Electric’s generation capacity comes from wind farms; however, because the wind does not always blow, the net energy from wind is around 18%. The solar farm produces power around 14% of the rated capacity. “Obviously, solar does not produce power at night and is not very beneficial in the winter – with fewer hours of daylight, more clouds and panels occasionally get covered in snow. Solar, in my opinion, is not a practical source of power in our region.”
    From a broader perspective, Albright said that because of the variability in power production from renewable energy sources, they are not an alternative to fossil-fuel baseload supply or peaking plants, but rather are a supplement.
    What do you think the energy sector will look like in both the near and distant future?
    In the near-term, there is ample power supply to meet our needs over the next decade. If we are forced to shutter existing coal-fired power plants because of new federal regulations or taxes, we will need to invest in other sources.  
    Looking long-term, federal energy policy will dictate what the energy sector will look like. The future will likely include more renewable energy and natural gas peaking plants and less coal and nuclear.
    It is believed that someday, energy storage will play a larger role in the power supply. Still, it is not currently a viable option due to cost and the inability to supply energy for days, not a few hours. “In January of 2020, there were about nine days in a row where our wind resources were limited because of icing conditions, and we cannot feasibly store enough energy to cover the shortfall, so we must rely on our baseload (fossil fuel) resources.”  
    There appears to be a lot of uncertainty within the energy industry. Moving forward, what can provide the industry with certainty?
    For nearly two decades, Congress has failed to address federal energy policy for electric utilities to provide certainty for long-term planning. Until we know what the rules will be, it is difficult to plan. Fortunately, we currently have adequate resources to meet our needs. “Between 2007 and 2011, we invested over $425 million to add emission controls to our existing coal-fired powerplants and are in full compliance with all federal and state air quality standards. The challenge is if a new administration decides that we can no longer use coal, we have a large mortgage on our power plants that we need to pay off from adding emission controls, and that requires time. If we are forced to invest in new energy sources sooner than planned, the cost of electricity will increase significantly.”

    What do you want people to know most about the energy sector?
    It is complicated. Several factors determine the cost of power supply; transmission availability and constraints, surplus production because of too much wind energy, wholesale market price volatility, power source availability, our climate and the political environment. Our number one goal is to provide affordable and reliable power to our member-owners.

    If someday there is a transition to alternative power sources, they must be affordable and reliable. We can go down that road, but “the biggest thing we need is time (decades).”
    If you could only operate off of wind and solar, what would that look like for consumers?
    “In January, it wouldn’t look very good. We would be out of power, nearly 67% of the time. It’s different in other parts of the country where they don’t have cold weather to deal with as we do in North Dakota; fundamentally, it is a life-safety issue. In our climate, we need power sources that are available 100% of the time. If we were without electricity for a day, the damage would be devastating … water doesn’t flow, gas doesn’t flow, food spoils and you don’t have communications. It becomes a very dire situation when you are dealing with the safety implications of having electricity or not.” 
    At the end of September, Cass County Electric unveiled vehicle charging stations. Are there plans to develop more of these in our community? What do you see as the future of electric vehicles?
    Currently, Cass County Electric has three electric vehicle fast-charging stations and has no immediate plans to add more across our community. However, Albright noted, “As more electric vehicles are added, more charging stations will be installed, likely by gas stations or other private businesses that embrace electric vehicle (EV) charging as an opportunity.” Further sharing his belief that this area will grow a lot more in the future and the increased likelihood of a statewide effort to place more EV chargers for those traveling across the country.  
    Albright noted the battery technology is likely holding EVs back, but mentioned, “The battery technology will continue to evolve, meaning the range between charges will increase, the price of batteries will hopefully decline, and charge times will be faster.” As we continue to investigate the future, Albright believes the public acceptance of electric vehicles will continue to increase. The day an all-electric Ford F-150 rolls off the line will be the beginning of a new era in EV transportation. As EVs become more popular, Albright believes any new commercial building should include EV charging capabilities, and any new residential home should pre-wire for a future EV charger.  
    Cass County Electric has a program for its members to pre-wire EV charging capabilities into their homes. Learn more at www.CassCountyElectric.com.

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