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Illinois Country Living

Harvesting Renewable Energy
Co-ops are fueling the green power revolution with innovation

by John Lowrey

Sean Middleton

Sean Middleton, Manager of Engineering for Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, says you can even view the co-op’s wind turbine live from the co-op’s Web site (www.e-co-op.com or http://pikewindcam.e-co-op.com). He adds that the wind turbine has actually become a local tourist attraction.

I remember climbing on my great-grandfather McCormick’s windmill on the plains of Oklahoma, you know, the state where the winds come sweeping down the plain. Taking a dare to see how high you would climb and then playing in the water trough below the windmill was good for at least half a day of fun. Wind generators still fascinate me.

For my great-grandfather the windmill was more than for fun, although I think he enjoyed watching us play on it. No, the windmill was a necessity.

Today it is essential that we find new ways to harness the wind and other renewable forms of energy. And rural electric cooperatives are uniquely positioned to help develop these resources.

We could talk about biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel, and electric cooperatives certainly have a role to play in developing the corn and soybean fields of Illinois into energy fields. But electric co-ops are also helping provide innovative solutions to harnessing wind, solar, biomass, hydro and geothermal energy. And they are doing it proactively without being mandated to do the right thing by the state or federal government. Innovation works better when it is a choice.

Co-ops have an advantage when it comes to being innovative. They’re small. Okay, smallness has its disadvantages too. But when you don’t have to deal with a large bureaucracy of committees and subcommittees on top of subcommittees you can make decisions and move forward. Also, co-ops are close to the ground where the rubber meets the road. Local people elect other members to serve on boards of directors where decisions are made that fit the local needs and benefit local people. Oh yes, and in rural areas you have lots of wind, biomass and room to erect wind generators. Where else are you going to build a wind farm?

First to tilt at windmills – Illinois Rural Electric

Dave Stuva

David Stuva, President/CEO
of Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, says, “Our co-op is taking a proactive position on renewable energy instead of a reactive position as a result of future mandates.” Stuva says he also considers geothermal heat pumps a very cost effective way for members to take advantage of the earth’s constant temperature, lower electric bills and reduce the demand for new energy.

Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, Winchester, is a good example. It started with a simple question. The co-op just asked its members, “Should the co-op be involved with renewable energy?”

“The majority said yes, we should be involved in some sort of renewable energy project,” says Sean Middleton, Manager of Engineering for Illinois Rural Electric. “That was back in 2003 and it was the catalyst.”

The co-op board and management asked Middleton to do the homework and if it was feasible they were willing to build the first wind generator in Pike county. Fast forward a few years and a lot of work on the part of Middleton and others and the co-op has a 1.65 megawatt wind generator producing enough energy to serve 500 homes.

Was it easy? No. First there was the money. Although the wind may be free, wind turbines of that size cost millions of dollars. There was no way the co-op could justify the expense without plenty of grants and a low interest loan. The Pike County board had never okayed something like this and had some legitimate questions and concerns. Then when everything seemed to be lining up, the Federal Aviation Administration called. Uh-oh, the 235-foot tall turbine is going to be near a flight path. Now what?

“It seemed like every day we’d get a new hurdle thrown at us,” says Middleton. “I joked with Bruce Giffin our manager that we were getting to be pretty good hurdle jumpers.”

Perseverance is the other side of innovation.

New wind projects

Now that Illinois Rural Electric has blazed this trail two more co-ops, Adams Electric Cooperative, Camp Point, and Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative, Auburn, are both trying to develop similar wind energy projects.

Corn Belt Energy, Bloomington, is working with a family owned company, AgriWind LLC, that has developed a unique four-turbine wind farm. AgriWind partnered with John Deere Wind Energy to develop the project. Energy from the wind farm will be purchased by Wabash Valley Power Association, the generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative serving Corn Belt Energy. Also, Horizon Wind Energy contracted with Corn Belt Energy to operate and maintain the electric system for a very large 240 turbine wind farm located in the co-op’s service area.

Wabash Valley Power Association also serves EnerStar Electric Cooperative, Paris, and MJM Electric Cooperative, Carlinville. The G&T has been very proactive in developing landfill gas generation plants. Using the waste methane gas that is produced by decaying waste in landfills, the co-op is producing 25.6 megawatts of renewable energy. The good thing about landfill gas projects is the electricity can be generated 24/7, so it is more like traditional coal, gas or nuclear generation and unlike wind generation, which is only available when the wind blows.

Although renewable energy such as wind and solar will help with our energy future, to ensure reliability base load plants will have to be built to match and back up wind turbine energy capacity. Also, one of the biggest obstacles for large-scale wind energy development is transmission line capacity that will transmit wind energy from rural areas to larger metropolitan areas where it is needed.

New small hydropower projects

Hydropower is our country’s largest source of renewable energy, but not here in the flatlands of Illinois. However two co-ops, Adams Electric Cooperative and Shelby Electric Cooperative, Shelbyville, are both exploring small hydropower projects.

Adams Electric would simply be a buyer for power produced by three turbines that may be installed by the city of Quincy next to river locks on the Mississippi. There are still a lot of environmental, regulatory and other hurdles to overcome, but Bill Stalder, Manager of Marketing and Member Service for the co-op, says, “We think it’s a great idea.” The river is an untapped resource and the co-op hopes power from the river will someday flow to its members.

At Shelby Electric, President/CEO Jim Coleman says they are working with their G&T Prairie Power, Inc. to develop a small hydropower project at the Lake Shelbyville dam. In the future Coleman says they may try and work with a dairy farm to develop a methane digester power project.

While Coleman is optimistic about renewable energy projects like this, he is also a realist and he worries about unreasonable expectations.

Coleman says, “I think renewable energy is fine as long as the public and government do not create unreachable expectations. Any energy produced must be able to stand on its own within a reasonable amount of time. Many renewable energy projects do not have the science to ever be economically acceptable without a handout from the government.”

Coleman says Shelby Electric, like many electric co-ops across the state, has passed net metering and renewable energy policies that will make it more economically feasible for individual members to invest in renewable energy. But he warns, “Don’t throw away your hard earned money until you know it will be worth the investment.”

Co-op plans first Illinois biomass-fueled power plant

Jo-Carroll Energy, Elizabeth, in September announced plans to build the state’s first biomass-fueled renewable energy power plant. The plant would use corn stover and wood waste to fuel the 80 megawatts of output. On top of that the co-op would sell steam from the plant to a nearby Danisco plant for its industrial processes. Waste not, want not.

Financing and partnerships for the plant are still being worked out, but Jo-Carroll President/CEO Michael Hastings, says, “We haven’t hit any major hurdles and we think it is a good idea for our specific region. We are kind of where the cornfields hit the timber. We also have river and rail access, and we are close to Chicago and could dispose of some of their wood waste.”

The new plant would be an important part of the co-op’s energy supply and help provide power for the new members and territory that Jo-Carroll purchased from Alliant Energy. “We hope that it will serve as a base for relatively stable energy prices for the next 20 years,” says Hastings.

Jo-Carroll also receives power from Dairyland Power Cooperative, a Wisconsin G&T. Serving a large number of dairy farms, Dairyland Power has been one of the most proactive utilities in the country in developing waste-to-energy facilities, or as some call it “cow power” plants. Each anaerobic manure digester facility can generate 775 to 840 kW of energy. Dairyland’s long-term goal is to create up to 25 megawatts of renewable “cow power,” enough to power 20,000 homes.

Future power needs expensive to meet

Whether it is a renewable energy project or new coal-powered plant electricity is going to become more and more expensive to generate. And our appetite for energy keeps growing.

Over just the next 10 years electricity usage is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the committed resources available to meet that new demand. Combine that increased demand for energy with aging infrastructure retirement and reliability problems, concern for global warming, the uncertainty of proposed government regulation and taxes, increased demand for fuel and raw materials for power plants world-wide, plus the don’t-build-it-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) problem and there is one fact that is clear—we need all the innovative answers we can find to solve our energy and environmental issues.

What can you do?

First, before you even think about investing in your own wind turbine or solar panel, invest in your home’s energy efficiency. The return on your energy efficiency investment is almost guaranteed. It’ll at least beat the stock market right now. Plus you’ll be more comfortable.

One option you should consider is a geothermal heat pump. Yes it is expensive, but for many homes and families it provides a decent return on investment with incredible energy savings, improves your comfort, increases property value and, yes, uses renewable energy. Because it takes advantage of the solar power stored in the earth geothermal heat pumps are up to 70 percent more energy efficient compared to other heat and air systems.

Call your local electric cooperative and the member service employee there can help you with other energy efficiency ideas. For example, if you need more insulation chances are they will recommend cellulose insulation, which is the best insulating material and made from recycled newspapers.

If you are really serious about investing in a wind turbine or another renewable energy project, contact your local co-op. They have a brochure that can help you work through the numbers to see what kind of payback the wind turbine will have. They can also talk to you about the safety and power quality issues that need to be addressed when connecting a wind turbine or any generator to the power grid.

Middleton says since the co-op put up its wind turbine the site has become almost a tourist attraction and the co-op has become a local resource for wind energy information. “We get calls constantly asking us things like ‘Where do I find out more about it?’ We now have a local small wind turbine dealer and there are a lot of good Web resources,” says Middleton.

Middleton says some people just want to do it no matter the cost. But he says some home units can cost $30,000. “These are not cheap. I definitely encourage people to not only double check the wind speeds at their site, but also run your own numbers.” Some units are just big enough to run a hair dryer. So be sure and do your homework and have realistic expectations, he says.

© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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