Renewables taking root
Innovative co-op renewable energy projects are growing strong
By John Lowrey
Adams Electric Cooperative’s Pigeon Creek Wind Turbine is the newest co-op owned renewable energy project. Board members (l-r) Rick King, Rebecca Barlow, James Benz, General Manager Jim Thompson, Alan Acheson and Robert Willis began talking discussing the project four years ago. Co-ops like Adams Electric are proactively adding renewable energy sources without government mandates called renewable portfolio standards.
The Gob Knob wind turbine, built on top of an abandoned pile of coal waste called a gob pile, was installed in December 2009. During construction an estimated 150 people worked on the Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative wind turbine. Caruthers Excavating and Bulldozing in Waverly, for example, worked on the foundation and road leading to the turbine.
Electric co-ops are helping spur development of “cow power” by turning waste to methane gas. Dairyland Power Cooperative is generating 3.3 megawatts using this waste to energy process.
Electric co-ops across the country and in Illinois are adding renewable energy technology in very innovative ways. From biomass to wind, co-ops are meeting, and in some cases, beating state renewable energy standards even though many are not required by government mandates called renewable portfolio standards.
“Illinois electric cooperatives have been proactive when it comes to energy innovation, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects,” says Duane Noland, President/CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives. “The most recent example is Adams Electric Cooperative, which just installed the first utility-grade wind turbine in Adams County. That follows Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative’s wind turbine, which was installed years ago, and was one of the first in the country. And recently I’m sure people have seen the Gob Nob wind turbine along I-55 near Farmersville that was installed by Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative.”
Electric co-ops, in some cases, are exceeding renewable portfolio standards (RPS) laws passed by 29 states and the District of Columbia that require investor-owned utilities, competitive electric generation suppliers, as well as some municipal electric systems and electric cooperatives (in 18 states) to add increasing amounts of “green” electricity to their retail power supply mix (ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent) by a certain date (most between 2018 and 2025).
Adams Electric Cooperative, Camp Point, held an open house for its new 900 kW turbine on October 7. At the ceremony, Quincy Mayor John Spring said, “This is the future. By the year 2025, Ameren and others will have to have more renewable supplies. I know the smaller co-ops are exempt from that, but I know that the co-ops are actually working quicker on this than the other utilities. I think the members of Adams Electric are pleased to see this go up.”
The turbine, similar to one installed in 2009 by Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative will produce enough electricity for 200–300 homes. President of Adams Electric’s board James Benz of Quincy said, “Four years ago the Adams Electric Cooperative board began discussing whether or not it might fit our needs here. We looked for spots with good wind and found several near some of our substations. This is a direct drive turbine, which is relatively new technology and it has half the moving parts of other turbines and it will generate power at a lower wind velocity. It is projected to have lower maintenance costs, too.”
The new wind turbine will supplement current power supplies and act as a hedge against rising fuel costs. But like many renewable energy projects where the “fuel” is free, the turbine would not have been financially feasible without $1.5 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs), which is essentially an interest free loan, plus a $150,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and $250,000 from the Department of Commerce and Economic Development.
Promoting and using geothermal energy is one of the other areas where Illinois electric cooperatives excel. For example, in 2009, nearly half of the homes built on Adams Electric’s lines had geothermal heat pumps installed.
One problem with wind or solar is the energy generated is not always available when needed. That’s why co-ops are also looking for ways to add more hydropower, biomass, landfill methane gas and even coal-bed methane options. These green energy sources can be counted on 24/7.
Biomass, which uses plant material and animal waste, supplies 15 times as much energy in the United States as wind and solar combined, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Biomass generation is carbon neutral with the burning of biomass generating CO2 and the growing of biomass energy fuels absorbing this CO2 at an equivalent or greater level.
Prairie Power, Inc., the generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative serving 10 Illinois distribution cooperatives, has been investigating converting its 22-megawatt coal generation plant at Pearl to a renewable biomass generation facility.
Randy Fisher, Plant Super-intendent for the Pearl Generation Station, says, “We are currently burning a mix of 5 percent waste corn and 95 percent coal in the boilers with little negative impact on the operation of the plant or its generation output.” Waste seed corn must be destroyed because it hasn’t been sold, will not germinate as well and has been treated so it can be consumed as feed.
A 100 percent conversion of the Pearl coal-fired plant to biomass would net 17-20 megawatts of renewable energy, or about 7 percent of Prairie Power’s annual sales. Fisher says the biomass fuel could include corn stover, tree trimmings, switch grass or other biomass energy crops or biomass waste.
Permitting is an issue for biomass plants and the EPA’s plan to tighten emission limits for new and existing boilers has virtually put a halt to any new biomass generation plans. Jo-Carroll Energy, a distribution cooperative in Elizabeth, planned to build an 80 megawatt biomass plant, but those plans are on hold until this new EPA regulation issue is resolved.
Fisher says Prairie Power has also investigated opportunities to invest in and develop other renewable energy generation resources including run of the river hydroelectric facilities and wind generation facilities. The capital investment and timelines to develop these renewable generation resources have been significantly greater than PPI’s estimates for its biomass conversion project at Pearl.
The sixth cooperative principle is cooperation among cooperatives and Prairie Power, along with Southern Illinois Power Cooperative – a G&T serving seven Illinois co-ops, Wabash Valley Power Cooperative – a G&T serving three Illinios co-ops and Jo-Carroll Energy have joined with other co-ops across the country to form the National Renewables Cooperative Organization (NRCO). This new co-op acts as a clearinghouse for renewable development opportunities by aggregating its members’ renewable energy needs. Prairie Power was the most recent to join and is the 25th member of the renewable energy co-op.
Southern Illinois Power Cooperative (SIPC) was one of the founding members of the National Renewables Cooperative. Scott Ramsey, President and General Manager of SIPC says, “We are currently reviewing a number of possibilities, including coal-bed methane and biomass. One of the renewable resources we are most closely studying is hydropower, and we believe that there are untapped resources in southern Illinois and along the Ohio River.”
Wabash Valley Power is also a member of the NRCO and has been a leader in developing landfill gas methane generation projects. Decomposing waste in landfills generates methane gas and the co-op uses a total of 51 Caterpillar engines at several landfills to generate 41 megawatts of baseload generation.
Dairyland Power Cooperative, which is the G&T serving Jo-Carroll Energy, has been very innovative in developing renewable energy from the waste created at rural dairies. This “cow power” is created using anaerobic digesters that turn the waste into methane gas. Dairyland Power currently has eight dairy methane digesters, is involved in five wind projects and three landfill gas projects.
The Twin Groves Wind Farm east of Bloomington, which is in Corn Belt Energy’s service territory, started production in 2007. Now, the project sprouting among the corn and soybean fields, could grow from 705 wind turbines to more than 2,772 in five years, according to the Illinois State University’s Center for Renewable Energy. Most of the energy produced will go to the Windy City of Chicago. This wind project along with 20 others in Illinois have combined to add about $8.3 million to farm income for leases, $18 million in property taxes, created nearly 10,000 construction jobs and will support nearly 500 permanent jobs. Energy production has grown from 50 megawatts in 2003 to 1,847.7 megawatts in 2010, according to the Illinois Wind Working Group, which is part of the Illinois State University’s Center for Renewable Energy.
To support jobs in this growing field Illinois State University created a renewable energy major for students. Other programs are starting at Illinois community colleges across the state.
Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative recently helped out with the production of a video overview of what working on commercial grade wind turbines is like. The video features the co-op’s technician Jeff Lancaster at the co-op’s Gob Nob wind turbine and will be used by Danville Area Community College.
With the recent increase in commercial wind farm development, rural landowners are searching for guidance before signing a wind lease with developers. One resource titled “Wind Turbine Lease Considerations for Landowners,” is available from the North Dakota State University Extension Service. The free PDF version can be downloaded by linking to www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/agecon/market/ec1394.pdf. Other resources can be found at the Illinois State University’s site www.RenewableEnergy.ilstu.edu/wind.
Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative in Winchester was the first distribution co-op in the nation to install a wind turbine. Bruce Giffin, General Manager, says that although wind is free, wind energy is still more expensive than traditional energy sources. He says, without the grants the co-op received, the turbine wouldn’t have been financially feasible. Sean Middleton, Manager of Engineering for the co-op, says the capacity factor for the turbine (the ratio of output over time) has been about 30 percent. “We originally anticipated a 10 to 15 year payback if maintenance and taxes don’t go up significantly,” he says.
Maintenance costs will be a factor with any facility. Early on the Illinois Rural Electric’s wind turbine had a run in with a lightning storm and one of the blades had to be patched. That’s just one example of the type of jobs this new industry is creating. It requires a contract employee who’s not afraid of heights and is good at patching fiberglass wind turbine blades.
More and more electric cooperative members are also intrigued with the idea of generating their own electricity with renewable energy sources. There are tax incentives that make it more attractive, but the cost can still run from several thousand dollars to more than $50,000, and home green energy projects can take as much as several decades to produce a return on investment.
Noland says, “For those members that would like to learn about renewable energy options, they should talk to the staff at their local electric cooperative. There is a brochure available with a worksheet that will help you work through the economics to see if it is a cost effective option and what kind of payback that renewable project might have. Most co-ops have a net metering policy that can help. And you also need to discuss the installation’s safety and technical issues with your local cooperative.”