Senate hearing studies promise, challenge of rural power

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 20, 2018

Senate lawmakers promised to look out for the interests of rural energy providers yesterday during a hearing that zeroed in on both the problems and promise of power production in remote parts of the country.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, both represent states with significant rural populations.

Many people in those communities, said Murkowski, are “living on the edge of energy insecurity,” relying on expensive diesel fuel for heat and energy, a cost that “carries over to everything else they do.”

In Montana, power lines owned by rural electric cooperatives could go around the world twice if they were connected end to end.

“That’s infrastructure that’s very expensive that we have to pay for,” said Doug Hardy, general manager of the Central Montana Electric Power Cooperative Inc. “We’re kind of at the limit of what people can afford in rural areas.”

Hardy, along with several other witnesses, both top senators on the committee and many other lawmakers, pointed to President Trump’s proposal to sell transmission assets belonging to power marketing administrations as a policy move that could hurt rural energy interests.

“People are struggling at the end of those lines right now,” Hardy told committee members. “They don’t have the headroom.”

Despite the difficulties faced by rural communities in securing the energy they need, many advocates see them as opportunities for innovation.

“We’re in an energy revolution, and rural areas and islands are Bunker Hill,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “We need the private sector to come up with a rural electric system in a box, whether it’s solar, wind, biomass, that can be scaled for a community of 80 or 800.”

But there are also some rural energy managers who think preserving traditional fuel sources is key.

“Coal is very important; it still constitutes a majority of megawatt-hours that we provide to our members,” said Matt Greek, senior vice president of research, development and technology at Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a North Dakota-based co-op.

“It also provides local benefits, employing folks in the mining operation and production and operation of power plants,” he told members.

“Moving away from that in some significant degree would be devastating to the communities that rely on it as the primary source of income,” Greek said.

The witness said he would like to see the Department of Energy focus on expanding its research into carbon capture technology.

Murkowski said much of the power generated in the U.S., including that used by people living in urban centers like Washington, is generated in rural parts of the country.

“We appreciate that a great deal,” she said. “But oftentimes it seems like where the resources come from bears the biggest burden. So making sure that we’re doing right by our rural communities, our families … let’s make our energy system a more equitable system.”