A Nuclear Navy Vet Plots Co-ops' Course

A Nuclear Navy Vet Plots Co-ops' Course
Vernon "Buddy" Hasten, CEO of Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas (Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.)

Vernon “Buddy” Hasten, president and CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, was a 20-year nuclear submariner in the United States Navy.

He thanks the service for making him an officer and an engineer. Fate and genetics made him sharp, animated and funny.

After Arkansas Business published a “Co-ops Accused of Blocking Sun” headline on a story about solar interconnection disputes, he created an image of the cooperative logo between the sun and Earth, creating an eclipse. He put it into a handout. Next, an image of a bottle of “Co-Opertone” sunblock.

“Look, the most affordable power system in the world is probably not very reliable,” he said in a rollicking 90-minute interview across a table bearing a wood model of a Los Angeles-class attack sub. Hasten served on two, the USS Phoenix, which put him at the reactor controls, and the USS Scranton, where Lt. Cmdr. Hasten was officer engineer years later. “We have to be realistic. The sun goes down every night.”

The nuclear Navy forces a sailor to face facts, Hasten said. “I grew up in a submarine force that didn’t tolerate people who won’t face real issues. That’s how nuclear accidents happen. If you can’t handle reality, they’ll get you and throw you off the ship.” Hasten’s rapid laugh tipped his hand; he meant it figuratively.

Hasten put down Arkansas roots quickly after succeeding Duane Highley as Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp.’s top executive in 2019. His previous job was vice president, engineering and construction, at Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. of Springfield, Missouri.

“I grew up in Iowa, but I love being in Arkansas,” he said. “This job is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Other than marrying my wonderful wife. But I didn’t leave Iowa because I didn’t like it, or I had a falling out with my dad. I left because there were no jobs. I’m a kid of the ’80s and all of a sudden factories were closing, jobs weren’t there. I joined the military, because what else do you do in a hometown like mine?”

From his landlocked state, off the coast of Nebraska, Hasten traveled the world, “exciting electrons” under the North Pole, in the Panama Canal and beneath most of the seven seas. He got an Auburn engineering degree along the way and wound up working for the Navy’s equivalent of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Naval Reactors.

When Hasten retired after 20 years’ service, Iowa still lacked jobs. After settling in Arkansas, the Hastens were joined by two of their children, a daughter graduating from college and a son ending a stint in the Army. The son now works in cybersecurity for Acxiom, the son’s wife as an operations manager for a medical transcription company. Both work remotely. Hasten’s daughter switched companies when her employer wouldn’t let her work from home with her new baby.

“Grandparents and grandkids don’t have to be separated by jobs in a world where we can work remote,” said Hasten, whose member co-ops are quickly stringing fiber optic cable on their distribution lines. Their goal is to get high-speed internet to rural Arkansas, much as the cooperatives did with electricity in the last century. “This is a very enabling and empowering thing.”

Hasten bubbled over with positive reports on all facets of the cooperative mission, but he grew fervent about small modular reactors, which he sees as a possible generation source in Arkansas. AECC provides wholesale electricity to the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives, which in turn serve about 600,000 member homes and businesses.

He foresees a future cooperative power mix with more solar (two 100-plus-megawatt arrays were announced last week, promising to cushion 10% of total peak load), a combined-cycle natural gas plant as a generation bridge, and a network of the small modular reactors, or SMRs. Remember those from the Navy? It has 72 nuclear submarines, 11 nuclear aircraft carriers and nine nuclear cruisers in service.

“I understand what’s going on inside that plant better than what’s going on in this office,” Hasten said. “If America wants to be serious about net zero carbon, and we don’t want to go back to fanning each other in summer, we have to have something energy-dense. There’s coal and gas. Years ago, it was wood. But the only thing the world knows today that could do the job emissions-free is nuclear.”

Four SMRs are nearing completion worldwide for utility use, and the factory-built modules might seem experimental. But not to Hasten, who noted the United States has been building two a year for decades.

“They’re here,” he said, pointing to the model, “in the submarines.”

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