Last week, Duane Highley, president and CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. (AECC) and vice chairman of the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), offered an assessment of risks facing the nation’s electric system, while challenging the notion that the U.S. grid has become antiquated at the first of several public meetings hosted by the Department of Energy for the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER).

His comments focused on grid resiliency, vulnerabilities and the strength of the existing electricity grid.

According to Highley, the mission of the nation’s electric cooperatives is to be reliable. However, he added that in rural America, affordability is particularly important as the cooperatives in Arkansas serve some of the poorest families in the country. "It is our responsibility to see that their energy is delivered at the lowest possible cost," he said.

Highley told the committee that he serves as vice chairman of the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC), a partnership between the federal government and electric industry to improve security, reliability and resiliency of the U.S. power supply system. The council works with government agencies and White House officials to improve information sharing to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure. The ESCC has worked with the government to obtain security clearances for utility leaders, allowing better awareness of potential grid security threats, he said.

He stated that the electric sector and the nuclear side of our industry is the only critical infrastructure area which has mandatory, enforceable standards for cyber-security. The disaster response plans are exercised in coordination with government, as demonstrated in last years’ NERC-led GridEx II exercise, a national disaster response exercise simulated a concurrent failure of power plants and transmission facilities across the U.S. The "outages" left millions without power. The anticipated EPA carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants would eliminate more capacity from the grid than what was simulated in the exercise.

"I’m not saying that the grid will immediately fail, but there will be reliability impacts to the grid if this capacity is not allowed to continue to operate," he said. "This is inevitable."

Highley added that there is much talk about the so-called aging U.S. grid. "While I appreciate the heightened concerned about resiliency, I also want to push back on any notion that our electric grid is not up to snuff," he said. "Our experience has demonstrated that the grid is more than ready to handle the challenges of a 21st century energy industry."

Jason Carter, interim general manager of North Little Rock Electric, said he generally agrees with Highly’s comments.

"I am not concerned that the grid is antiquated," said Carter. "However, I am concerned that the grid lacks sufficient capacity to facilitate the free-flow of power from the place it is generated to the place it is consumed. I am also concerned about the physical security of critical assets, such as large transformers, the failure of which would cause substantial disruption of electric service."

Last, as a public power provider, Carter said he is concerned about the volume of public information of NLR Electric’s utility that is available through blue-sky laws and the potential for that information to be exploited.

"The electric industry is changing at a rapid pace," said Carter. "Whether utilities are publicly-owned, cooperatively-owned, or investor-owned, we all have to work together to ensure that the overall system is reliable, so the lights will stay on in homes and businesses across Arkansas and America."

Tori Moss, a spokeswoman for First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville, added, "First Electric Cooperative agrees with Duane Highley’s assessment."