Tackling Climate Change
by Megan McKoy
Solar panels and wind turbines currently 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 — now or in the years to come.
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 different picture. Under the most likely scenario, wind will generate just 2.4 percent of our country’s energy by 2030; 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 sets “green power” mandates for electric utilities. These would require specific amounts of renewable energy generation 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.
Setting the standard is the 25 by ’25 Alliance, comprised of leaders in agriculture and forestry including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Alliance members support new policy and research initiatives with a shared vision of generating 25 percent of America’s energy from renewable resources by 2025.
When it comes to renewable electricity, such as hydropower, wind, biomass, geothermal, solar and hydrokinetic (tidal and ocean wave), electric co-ops are leading the way. In fact, co-ops today receive 11 percent of their power requirements from renewables compared to 9 percent for electric utilities as a whole. Since 2000, electric cooperative residential rates have consistently remained lower than the industry average.
In Missouri, Associated Electric Cooperative buys the entire output of the state’s first three utility-scale wind projects and recently announced a similar deal with a fourth wind farm. The new project, called Lost Creek, will be the largest in the state.
Power from plants
Central Electric Power Cooperative, a transmission co-op that serves eight central Missouri distribution co-ops, has conducted several biomass test burns at its Chamois Power Plant. In one case, Central burned walnut shells that were rendered useless as industrial abrasives by a tornado. Instead of going to a landfill, the shells were turned into green energy at the plant.
Later the plant used corn cobs taken directly from a local field to generate power. In another case, the plant tested the viability of shelled corn as a biofuel. Central Power also burned used railroad ties and sludge from poultry breading.
Oglethorpe Power Corp., a generation and transmission cooperative in Georgia, has turned to an abundant Peach State biomass resource — trees.
Georgia boasts 24 million acres of trees, and Oglethorpe Power has two 100-megawatt biomass generation stations in the works with the possibility of a third. And the power plants can also burn pecan hulls, peanut shells and sawdust.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative has begun experimenting with another potential biomass fuel — switchgrass. With help from the University of Kentucky, the co-op conducted a test by mixing 70 tons of switchgrass with coal in one of three generating units at its 1,118-megawatt Spurlock Station. The result? The warm-season forage replaced 1 percent to 2 percent of the coal normally used at the plant.
To fund the project, the co-op has tapped an incentive program offered by its wholesale power supplier, Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association. The G&T provides performance payments to its 44 member co-ops based on how well new renewable resources generate power.
Connecting the dots
One reason northwest Missouri is the site for the state’s first wind farms is the strong transmission grid owned by N.W. Electric Power Cooperative in Cameron. Wind power does little good unless this resource can be moved to locations where it is needed.
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 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 megawatts of wind energy from purchased power agreements with three commercial wind farms in North and South Dakota, several backyard turbines owned by consumers and two small projects jointly developed with member G&Ts Central Power Electric and East River Electric Power Cooperative in Madison, S.D. Plans are under way to develop an additional 270 megawatts of fully owned and operated wind power.
Of course, ordering standards is one thing — meeting them another. To take better advantage of renewable energy opportunities, electric cooperatives last year formed the National Renewables Cooperative Organization. The new co-op will help its members share renewable power expertise and collaborate on projects across the nation.
Whether through national projects or generation in their own backyards, cooperatives are blazing the trail for others in making renewable power a reality. Visit www.nreca.coop to learn more.
McKoy writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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