MET’s CEO Talks Modern Energy Management

chris Jones middle tennessee electric

Middle Tennessee Electric’s (MET) President and CEO Chris Jones recently made a visit to the Rotary Club of Murfreesboro to talk about what it means to manage an electric company in this modern age. Being a non-profit, their mission is service most of all.

“As leader of your electric coop, my chief role is to serve,” explained Jones. “And if we at Middle Tennessee Electric are doing our jobs the way we should…and if we live out what we do that way, we will be better for you…We exist to make life better for you.”

Founded in 1936, MTE is the largest electric cooperative in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) region. Owned by their members, they provide more than 750,000 Tennesseans with electrical power in 11 Middle Tennessee counties, primarily Rutherford, Cannon, and Williamson. They also serve lots of businesses, Nissan being their largest customer down to small shops on the Square and everything in between. They control power over 15,000 miles of electric line, which is the equivalent of going back and forth between Murfreesboro and Seattle six times.

“There are about 900 electric cooperatives across the country,” said Jones, “we are the second largest. Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas, serving Austin, is the largest.”

Getting their power from TVA, it is generated from a diverse portfolio of sources, including hydropower, coal, natural gas, renewable, and the majority these days is nuclear based.

“Nuclear is the future, I think,” said Jones. “There is a lot of exciting work that TVA is doing in that space.” 

In the 1930s, when the organization was created they made life better simply by turning the lights on, but things are a lot more complicated today. The company is engaged in the community, involved in economic development, provides charity to those that need it, and are now delivering broadband to those who do not have it, but they seek to make life better primarily by the delivery of electrical power.

“Our mission is to deliver affordable, reliable, safe electricity through outstanding member service,” added Jones. “Our vision is a measurement for us, it is to be in the top 5% of electric utilities nationally as gauged by J. D. Power. So, how are we doing? The last quarter of last year, of the largest 150 electric utilities in the country, we were number three in the J.D. Power survey. We’re very proud of that, but we have room to grow and room to improve. We’ve been inching up that list, wanting to get better. “

No matter how hard they work to keep the lights on, sometimes things just don’t go as planned, and that is what happened on December 23 and 24, 2022 when the rolling blackouts took place.

“There are steps in what is called the Load Reduction Program,” said Jones. “They are steps to manage high demand and load capacity.” 

Step one is asking customers to watch their energy use, as on hot days during the summer. The next is in-house curtailment, which means MTE turns their thermostat up and the lights off. Next is an appeal for reduction of consumption by the general public, asking everyone to turn down their heat or up their air conditioning. Then comes two steps related to curtailment of industrial consumption. 

“[The next step] is mythical, it never happens,” said Jones. “It’s rolling blackouts. [That’s why TVA’s messages to me on December 23rd] meant they were in trouble. We needed to shut down parts of the grid to maintain stability of the grid. It was like a nightmare, but it was true.”  

On December 24, things were even more dire. What happened is that the temperature dropped from mild to zero quickly, with wind and rain, all over the Southeast. Because the weather came so quickly and so extremely, a number of coal and natural gas facilities froze up.   

“TVA had winterized their facilities by the book,” explained Jones, “but the book didn’t work this time. And it didn’t work in several utilities across the Eastern United States…Other large providers did the same thing, they winterized by the book, but the book didn’t work [for them either]. The book has been rewritten, by the way.” 

Owning about 32,500 megawatts of capacity, on the morning of December 24, TVA lost 7,000 megawatts and demand went above 32,500, so the only thing they could do to keep the grid stable was rolling blackouts because they couldn’t even borrow from other large power companies. The other large energy companies they borrow from were experiencing the same issue. And if the grid had been lost, then it would have taken a couple of weeks to get it back up and running.

“So, TVA called us and…we began to go down the list across our substation networks and make disconnections of subsections,” said Jones. “It was Christmas Eve, Merry Christmas!…But I had to give the green light to push the button and that meant 15,000 people without power, and then 20 minutes 15,000 more…It was a very profound moment.”

Demand was much higher than what was projected. There has since been a lot of work done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.   

It is the job  of the MTE team to constantly balance the load, and most days the load is well under capacity, at about 14,000 megawatts. And other team members are constantly working on both physical and cyber security. 

“It is something we have capable resources working on all the time,” noted Jones. “We share notes with like utilities, we share notes with TVA…The people who seek to disrupt are very sophisticated, so we have to stay on top of it.” 

MTE has also purchased United Communications, and they are now working to get broadband to those that need it, starting with rural areas and the underserved.

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