THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
Although it’s impossible to know how we’ll be using electricity 40 years from now, utilities have to begin planning today
At East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester, Denver York, vice president of System Operations, says, “As an electric cooperative we are here to make people’s lives better, and that’s not just better today, but better in the future. Sixty years ago somebody had to decide what generators, transmission lines, and substations to build, and then made adequate preparations so that the electricity demand of their future could be met. A very long time ago they figured out what to do so that we can deliver power today—and you can have the conveniences that you want in your home.”
The original planners were thinking of lights, irons, and water heaters. They did not imagine cell phones, microwave ovens, or TVs. What they did have was a clear vision of a reliable, affordable power supply for people in rural parts of Kentucky, a system that focused on service, not profits.
Preparing for holograms
York says, “We must continue to think ahead so that 40 years from now if a person wants to watch the holographic images of the UK basketball team play on their kitchen tabletop, or use some other technology that we can’t even describe now, they will be able to. The power grid is a very complex piece of machinery. Not only do we have to operate it as such today, we have to maintain it—and continue to plan and build it for tomorrow.”
The work of those early planners now provides power to 519,000 homes, farms, businesses, and industries in 87 counties. A not-for-profit business, East Kentucky Power Cooperative is owned by the 16 local not-for-profit electric distribution co-ops it serves today.
East Kentucky Power generates electricity at several conventional power plants fueled by coal and natural gas, six smaller landfill methane power plants, and also distributes power produced at two hydroelectric dams. East Kentucky’s transmission system includes 2,800 miles of high-voltage power lines that bring electricity to 356 substations—and serves more than 1 million people.
Tony Campbell, East Kentucky Power Co-op president and CEO, says, “We’re striving for balance to provide reliable and affordable energy. We want to invest money and make improvements in our generating equipment and in our transmission system that are going to last for another 30 or 40 years. Each choice we face could have a huge economic impact on our end consumers. So our goal is to think about how to make our investments over time to keep our rates as reasonable as we can.”
Campbell says, “We’ve already invested so much capital in building our generators, we want to run them as long as possible to extract as much value from them as possible.” During the past 10 years, East Kentucky Power has spent about
$1 billion to install upgrades and special environmental equipment to reduce emissions as required by federal regulations with strict timetables.
Planning for affordability
On the transmission side, East Kentucky Power Co-op has more flexibility when considering what improvements to make to substations and high-voltage power lines.
At the Avon bulk power substation, electrical engineer Joe Pierce says, “The electrical utility industry is making the transition from interval-based testing to condition-based testing. So instead of following a set schedule, we are doing other tests to assess the condition of individual parts. We might find a potential problem before something fails.”
Campbell says, “Where we have the oldest infrastructure in our transmission system we are asking ‘can we go ahead and replace some of that now?’ We might be better off doing it now because we’re in a time where we can borrow money for 2 or 2.5 percent for 30 years. For our end consumers, that’s a good thing.”
Other opportunities to save money during the coming decades involve the sources of the power flowing through those transmission lines.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is encouraging cooperation among all kinds of utilities. Traditionally, neighboring utilities have made one-on-one agreements with each other to buy and sell surplus power to help out when their own equipment can’t meet the demands of their customers. In recent years the federal commission has developed a system of regional transmission organizations that provide a much more carefully structured system to help electric utilities coordinate their actions.
This year East Kentucky Power Co-op will complete the long process to join the PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that includes utilities in Kentucky, 11 other eastern states, and Washington, D.C.
Campbell says, “Electricity demand for most of the utilities in PJM occurs during the summer, but we’re unusual because our load peaks in the winter. Instead of turning on a more expensive generator in our own fleet, as a member of PJM we may be able to buy lower-cost power from somebody else’s coal plant when their demand goes down in the winter and our demand goes up. And in the summer, we may be able to sell our low-cost coal power to everybody else. That will help us operate much more efficiently.” Such improved efficiency should help keep power costs affordable for end consumers.