Tackling Climate Change
Cleaner generation on horizon
by Megan McKoy
Open a can of soda and you can hear it: the refreshing fizz. It’s the sound of carbonization, and the basis for one of several technologies — carbon capture and storage — that electric cooperatives are developing in a quest for a cleaner energy future.
Questions about how to ensure a safe, reliable and affordable supply of electricity with the least environmental impact swirl at the center of the nation’s ongoing climate change debate. Carbon dioxide, released into the air when fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are burned to generate electricity, has been blamed as one of the principal contributors to climate change.
The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium whose members include electric co-ops, offers a seven-part strategy that, if implemented, will allow the electric utility industry to slow, halt and eventually decrease carbon dioxide emissions while continuing to meet demand for affordable, reliable electricity.
Electric cooperatives are at the forefront of finding ways to use coal cleanly while also diversifying their generation mix — all part of balancing their twin roles as being good stewards of members’ money and the environment. Clearing big technical hurdles will be expensive but necessary given America’s reliance on coal to keep the lights on. Here are examples of how co-ops are applying EPRI’s strategy:
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide may seem like science fiction, but it’s been done since the 1800s. Since the gas can be stored in solids or liquids, researchers are testing the technology to remove carbon dioxide gas released during power generation, compress it and then pump it deep underground.
The catch? Adding this technology makes electricity more expensive. To get a better handle on the cost and technical aspects of adding carbon capture to existing coal plants, Basin Electric Power Cooperative — a Bismarck, N.D.-based generation and transmission co-op (G&T) supplying wholesale power to 125 distribution co-ops in nine states — is conducting a carbon capture demonstration project on a portion of its Antelope Valley Station power plant near Beulah, N.D. The move marks the first attempt by a U.S. utility to retrofit a coal-fired power plant with this capability. About 1 million tons of carbon dioxide will be captured annually starting in 2012.
“We believe we can protect the climate and maintain a strong economy,” says Basin’s CEO and General Manager Ron Harper. “But it requires a balanced approach in which consumers continue to conserve, the industry continues to invest in and apply new technologies, and the government supports advancements while avoiding crippling and economically devastating timelines.”
Co-ops are improving traditional power generation in other ways, too. Through Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), coal is converted into a clean-burning gas stripped of polluting sulfur compounds and mercury; the synthetic gas is then used to make electricity. The technology provides greater efficiencies than traditional coal generation, resulting in about a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide while producing the same amount of electricity.
One of the nation’s first IGCC demonstration facilities, the 292-megawatt Wabash River Coal Gasification Repowering Project in West Terre Haute, Ind., is partially owned and managed by Wabash Valley Power Association — the wholesale power supplier for Citizens Electric in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., and 27 other electric cooperatives. The synthetic gas produced on-site powers a gas turbine that produces 192 megawatts while a steam turbine, fueled by leftover heat, generates another 100 megawatts.
“IGCC technology makes great sense as we plan for a cleaner energy future,” says Wabash Valley’s CEO and President Rick Coons. “We have the flexibility to use coal or petroleum byproducts as our fuel source, and the resulting syngas is far cleaner than traditional fossil fuels.”
EPRI’s strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions includes an increased reliance on renewable fuels. When it comes to generating renewable electricity, electric co-ops lead the industry, receiving 11 percent of their power supply from renewables, compared to 9 percent for electric utilities as a whole.
Hydropower generates 87.4 percent of renewable co-op energy. Wind provides a healthy 10.8 percent, while resources including biomass, tidal power, geothermal and solar panels produce about 2 percent.
Biomass power plants use biological materials ranging from poultry litter to wood waste to create electricity. Missouri’s Central Electric Power Co-op, Oglethorpe Power Corp., a G&T based in Georgia, and East Kentucky Power Cooperative, a G&T serving 16 distribution cooperatives in the Bluegrass State, are experimenting with harnessing the power-production potential of fuel sources including walnut hulls, corn cobs, sawdust or switchgrass. Burned on their own or combined with coal, these readily available fuels offer new possibilities.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 11 percent of all renewable energy last year came from biomass. Within 22 years, that figure will grow to 32 percent, second only to hydropower.
The cheapest kilowatt remains the one that’s never generated. As a result, increasing energy efficiency plays a key role in EPRI’s strategy. It also dominates co-op efforts to help consumers control costs.
Today, 92 percent of co-ops sponsor energy-efficiency programs, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service organization representing the interests of the nation’s 900-plus electric co-ops.
One of them, Missouri’s Associated Electric Cooperative, which suplies electricity to all Missouri cooperatives except Citizens, has invested $31.1 million in its “Take Control & Save” energy efficiency campaign. The effort hopes to cut 1.9 million megawatt-hours over six years by encouraging the use of more energy efficient appliances, lighting and smarter consumer habits.
Elsewhere, Delaware Electric Cooperative based in Greenwood, Del., launched “Beat the Peak,” a program that helps consumers save energy and money by using appliances during off-peak times. Weekday afternoons — particularly hot, humid, summer days — often see both electricity use and prices for purchasing wholesale power skyrocket.
Like Delaware Electric, roughly 37 percent of electric co-ops employ some type of load management program. In many cases, consumers volunteer to have special load control equipment attached to electric water heaters, air conditioners and other appliances, allowing the co-op to switch them off during demand peaks. Consumers typically don’t notice when this happens, but the overall savings can be significant.
The future of cleaner generation
In addition to carbon capture, cleaner coal generation, renewable energy and efficiency, co-ops are promoting other EPRI-advocated measures such as putting plug-in hybrid cars on the road and adding carbon-free nuclear power. But all parts of the EPRI model require further research and development.
Co-ops are asking lawmakers to provide the funding necessary to speed development of these technologies — and consumers can, too. Through the Our Energy, Our Future grassroots campaign at www.ourenergy.coop, you can ask Congress to work with co-ops to bring about an affordable energy future.
Meanwhile, electric co-ops will continue to mix and match generation resources to meet America’s growing demand for electricity — finding the best way to balance environmental concerns while ensuring delivery of safe, reliable and affordable power.
McKoy writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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