Electric co-ops lead the way in harnessing renewable resources
Solar panels and wind turbines capture the public’s imagination when it comes to meeting future electricity needs. However, perception of these technologies does not come close to matching their actual contribution to our nation’s energy mix.
When asked by Bisconti Research, Inc. where most electricity will come from in 15 years, 72 percent of Americans believe solar will reign as the top source, followed by wind. But projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) paint a very different picture. Under the most likely scenario, wind will generate just 2.4 percent of our country’s energy by 2030 and solar a fractional 0.2 percent.
That means we will need coal, natural gas and nuclear power to continue “keeping the lights on.” But renewable sources will grow in size, and could take a big leap forward if Congress, as expected, follows the lead of 28 states and the District of Columbia and sets “green power” mandates for electric utilities. These would require utilities to add specific amounts of renewable energy generation to their systems within a given timeframe. Since renewable energy technology is more expensive than other sources of generation, such government mandates will directly increase consumers’ electric bills. Electric cooperatives are working closely with Congress and other groups in an effort to keep power costs as affordable as possible, despite possible mandates.
When it comes to generating electricity from renewable sources like hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, solar and hydrokinetic (tidal and ocean wave), electric cooperatives are leading the way, while keeping power affordable for members. In fact, co-ops today receive 11 percent of their power requirements from renewables compared to 9 percent for electric utilities as a whole.
Power From Plants
Biomass power plants use biological material to produce electricity. This means anything from poultry litter and cow manure to landfill gas can generate power. According to EIA, 11 percent of all renewable energy produced in the U.S. last year came from biomass; within 22 years, that figure will grow to 32 percent, second only to hydropower.
Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth is planning an 80-megawatt, biomass-fueled, renewable energy center in northwest Illinois. When completed it will be the first of its kind in Illinois. The plant will be fueled by various types of renewable biomass such as clean waste wood, corn stover and switchgrass.
Dairyland Power Co-op in Wisconsin, the generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative serving Jo-Carroll Energy, has been an early leader in developing dairy farm based methane digesters. And Wabash Valley Power Association, serving three Illinois distribution co-ops, is a Midwest leader in developing landfill gas generation facilities. Wabash Valley Power also announced that it will purchase power from four wind turbines owned by AgriWind LLC near Bloomington. The Illinois wind power will be added to the mix of renewable energy serving homeowners in a four-state.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative, a G&T serving 16 distribution cooperatives in the Bluegrass State, has begun experimenting with another potential biomass fuel — switchgrass. With help from the University of Kentucky, East Kentucky Power conducted a “test burn” by mixing 70 tons of switchgrass with coal in one of three generating units. The result? The warm-season forage replaced 1 percent to 2 percent of the coal normally used at the plant. Swithgrass can grow on marginal farmland, needs little rainfall and is also being touted as a potential source for ethanol production.
Connecting the Dots
With resources close by and more room to expand, many renewable projects are built in rural areas. But the electricity these facilities produce must be delivered to cities quite a distance away. Current transmission lines can’t meet this need, so more lines must be built to connect new renewable generation resources. Co-op G&Ts are uniquely qualified to meet this need, with a strong transmission grid already in place and cooperative partners stationed close to rural renewable resources.
North Dakota claims some of the largest wind power potential capacity in the nation, and Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a G&T that serves co-ops in nine states, worked with NextEra Energy Resources (formerly FPL Energy, a subsidiary of investor-owned utility FPL Group) to develop the first large wind farm in the state.
Following a goal set by its 126 member co-ops in 2005 to meet at least 10 percent of its member demand with clean energy sources within five years, Basin Electric Power has led the region in wind power development. The G&T currently draws 136 MW of wind energy from purchased power agreements with three commercial wind farms in North and South Dakota and two small projects jointly developed with member co-ops. Plans are under way to develop an additional 270 MW of fully co-op owned and operated wind power.
So far, 28 states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable portfolio standards (RPS), laws that require utilities to add increasing amounts of renewable energy to their power supply mix (ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent) by a certain date (mostly between 2018 and 2025).
Now, Congress may get into the act and adopt national renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards for utilities that will likely augment state statutes. However, many co-ops here in Illinois and across the nation are adding renewable energy without state or federal mandates. For example, Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative in Winchester and Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative in Auburn both own and operate large wind turbines. Adams Electric Cooperative in Camp Point is working on a similar wind turbine project.
Of course, ordering standards is one thing — meeting them is another. Some states have stronger and more reliable wind resources available, while others benefit from more sunshine. To take better advantage of renewable energy opportunities, no matter where they may be located, electric cooperatives last year formed the National Renewables Cooperative Organization (NRCO). The new co-op will help its members share renewable power expertise and collaborate on projects across the nation. Jo-Carroll Energy is one of the 24 member co-ops and so is Southern Illinois Power Cooperative, the G&T serving six southern Illinois electric co-ops. An overview of the program can be found at www.renewable.coop.
Electric co-op leaders are asking Congress to provide flexibility in any renenewable energy mandates so innovation with new renewable resources can continue. Co-op leaders are also asking for a small utility exemption. Innovation should be a free choice not a mandate and financial burden on small consumer-owned utilities.
Whether through national projects or generation in their own backyard, cooperatives are already blazing the trail for others in making renewable power a reality. To learn more, visit www.nreca.coop.
By Megan McKoy who writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
© 2015 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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