I left the farm in Keokuk, Iowa, to enlist in the Navy’s nuclear power program in 1987. My real motivation for joining the Navy was to generate money for college. Neither of my folks had a high school diploma, and they surely couldn’t afford to send me to college.
One time I asked my dad what he thought about me applying to the U.S. Naval Academy to get college for free, and he told me, “Buddy, the Naval Academy is for rich kids and senators’ sons, no need to apply,” so I didn’t. (This is one time that I can say my dad was wrong.) The Navy provided a way for me to serve my country while also providing me a way to achieve my life goals. I had no idea when I left the farm that I would stay in the Navy for over 20 years, get that college degree and make it a career.
To be honest, I took a test at the MEPS station in St. Louis, Missouri, and they told me that, based on my score, I would be a great fit for nuclear power, that the Navy Nukes get the best training in the Navy, and that submarine guys make more money. That all sounded good to me, so I became a Navy nuclear submariner.
For those who read my Karma Cake story last February, you know that I left the Navy to take on a role as a coal plant manager back in Iowa in 2007. My career took a turn for the better when I joined the cooperative business model in 2011, and by 2012, I was managing coal and gas plants for Associated Electric in Springfield, Missouri. I also gained experience with balancing a portfolio of generating assets, including wind and hydropower plants. Since coming to Arkansas in 2019, I have added solar energy to the list of generation resources that I am now fluent in.
My entire professional career has revolved around all forms of energy production (i.e., nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind and solar). My wife, Tracy, and I have moved 19 times in our 33 years of marriage for me to gain this experience. You may be asking yourself, “OK, so what is the point?” Here is the point. There is currently a national debate raging over what forms of energy our country should use in the future. The largest issue fueling this debate is climate change and what impact mankind is having on the earth’s climate because of carbon emissions.
As in all topics of interest like this, there is a lot of good and bad information that circulates, and mostly folks choose the information to put forward that best supports their personal agenda or views on the issue. If you produce natural gas, you are most likely to highlight that natural gas is cleaner than coal. If you produce coal, you are likely to highlight that it is cheap and reliable. If you operate hydroelectric plants or develop wind or solar energy plants, you are likely to highlight that they don’t emit carbon during operation. If you operate nuclear power plants, you highlight that they are very reliable and don’t emit carbon. The fact of the matter is that all forms of energy have their strengths and weaknesses, and we must balance all those forms of energy to achieve our mission of being Reliable, Affordable and Responsible.
Our very mission of being Reliable, Affordable and Responsible is always in tension with itself and requires that we balance all three to best serve our members.
The most reliable electric system that never experiences a single outage is unaffordable. The electric generation system that only utilizes intermittent resources and emits no carbon is not the most reliable or most affordable.
And the concept of what is responsible varies widely based on values. For example, if you are most concerned about climate change, you may consider having fossil generation in the portfolio irresponsible, but if you are most concerned with rolling blackouts and highly volatile electric prices, you may consider a portfolio without enough coal or nuclear baseload generation irresponsible.
Energy at the wholesale level or generation level is measured in Megawatt Hours (MWh) and, at the residential or retail level, in Kilowatt Hours (kWh). The ability to produce energy is measured in megawatts (MW) and is referred to as capacity. Capacity is how much you can produce at any one moment in time, and energy (MWh) is how much is actually produced. Capacity and energy are related, but they are not the same thing.
One of the great fallacies I see these days is the concept that removing 1 MW of nuclear, coal or natural gas from the grid and replacing it with 1 MW of an intermittent resource is equal. That this is somehow a Net Zero kind of move, and that the end result is an electric grid that is just as capable and cleaner at the same time. That a MW is a MW, so why should I care what kind it is? This is just not the case, and this nuance matters a lot if you want to be Reliable, Affordable and Responsible.
I do have an agenda, and it is you, the member-owner. My agenda is not profit-driven; we are a nonprofit cooperative. I am technologically agnostic and support all forms of energy. I believe that we should select the portfolio that best balances all three components of our mission of being Reliable, Affordable and Responsible.
In order to help our members understand the different power sources’ strengths and weaknesses and how they impact our mission, we are launching a “Balance of Power” campaign to help raise our collective energy IQ. Our goal is to better inform you of the challenges faced when trying to achieve the Balance of Power for our cooperative.
Buddy “Vernon” Hasten is President and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc., and Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation.