Arkansas Electric Cooperative CEO says coal is ‘no longer king’, consumers are ‘next power plant’

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,913 views 

Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. CEO Duane Highley isn’t selling much more electricity these days and he’s happy about it.

Highley, who has been at the helm of one of the state’s largest electricity providers for nearly seven years, said energy efficiency has helped produce more power with existing assets, and in turn, is helping reduce the need for new billion-dollar power plants to be constructed.

“Since 2007, there’s been no increase in electrical consumption nationwide,” said Highley, who appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics. “Imagine that: there’s been more meters, more households, even in Arkansas, there’s more households and we’re growing about a percent and a half in terms of households, but we’re not selling any more kilowatt hours.”

He said energy efficient light bulbs and air conditioning units explain much of this decade-old trend. And, he says consumers should be complimented.

“Our next power plant is being built in every consumer’s home right now every time they change a light bulb,” said Highley.

Larger economic forces have also contributed to the energy paradigm shift, and to some degree, have superseded the uncertainty from shifting governmental regulations. In the last decade, power utilities have had to contend with goals from the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Trump administration’s rollback of these efforts.

“This has been the greatest period of uncertainty in my career. I’ve been in the industry for 36 years and I’ve never seen as much change as we see now,” he said.

“One thing I know is that coal is no longer king. I’m not as worried about the loss of coal as we once were because the economics don’t favor coal. You can say we’re in a ‘post coal world’ because the economics of fracking natural gas are better than coal, solar is better than coal, wind is better than coal – just on an economic basis. As I look forward, I can see a day in Arkansas when some of the existing coal [plants] will retire,” he said.

Renewable energy sources – such as solar and wind – and more cost-effective natural gas powered plants are a larger part of the AECC’s portfolio. Once much more heavily dependent on coal, Highley says economic forces are driving decisions.

“I can see the day when that coal goes away we’ll just already be generating with renewables to replace that energy,” he said.

Highley also discussed AECC’s efforts to mobilize assistance in the Carolinas in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. He also elaborated on the company’s efforts in Guatemala and said progress is being made in Puerto Rico. Watch more of his full interview in the video below.