Today, more than 80 percent of our nation’s 900-plus co-ops and other publicly-owned electric utilities provide electricity produced by green power sources. By tapping resources such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass—including landfill gas, livestock waste, timber byproducts and crop residue—electric co-ops nationally get 11 percent of their power requirements from renewable sources, compared with 9 percent for electric utilities as a whole.
But most new renewable generation is expensive compared with traditional sources of generation. As a result, many publicly owned utilities are hard at work finding ways to integrate renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass into their power supply, while keeping retail rates affordable.
The Price of Wind
Wind power remains the second most prevalent renewable energy resource in the United States, after hydro. More than 35,000 megawatts (MW) of wind generating capacity had been installed by the end of 2009, enough to serve 9.7 million homes. Electric co-ops account for 2,060 MW of that capacity.
Minnkota Power, a generation and transmission co-op based in North Dakota, uses wind to supply 31 percent of its member-owner load—tops among utilities in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2008 Wind Technologies Market Report.
In the Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration expects the region’s nearly 3,000 MW of wind capacity to more than double by 2012. Alaska Village Electric Cooperative has installed wind generating capacity of 2,564 kilowatts (kW). Kotzebue Electric Association, also in Alaska, has 1,155 kW and is contracting for two 900 kW units to be installed next year.
But wind doesn’t always blow when electricity is needed—a condition referred to as “variability.” Transporting wind energy from reliably windy spots to where the electricity is needed—population centers sometimes hundreds of miles away—also costs money.
If the nation were to draw 20 percent of its electricity from wind, a huge amount of new transmission capacity would need to be built. For the eastern half of the country alone, this kind of build out could require up to 22,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission, with a price tag as high as $158 billion, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“It costs less to build transmission on that scale than to build wind turbines built where there’s less wind,” explains Jay Morrison, senior regulatory counsel at the Arlington, Virginia-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “But it will be difficult to get that done. The industry and policy-makers will first have to reach agreement as to how to plan, site and allocate the costs of all of that transmission.”
Solar power also experiences variability challenges. A fraction of 1 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from solar—just more than 500 MW of capacity—although some electric co-ops are finding ways to make the sun work for their members.
Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Willcox, Arizona, was honored for increased use of solar power based on watts per customer during 2009. Unranked in 2008, the co-op took the top spot in a national top 10 list by the Solar Electric Power Association, with 56 solar watts per customer.
Another Arizona co-op, Graham County Electric Cooperative, ranked 10th, with 14.8 watts. Joining those two in the top 10 for solar capacity per customer in 2009 among cooperatives were Trico Electric, Mohave Electric and Duncan Valley Electric, all of Arizona; Douglas Electric of Oregon; and Anza Electric of California.
Co-ops around the country are tapping into the potential of solar. During the past two decades, Verendrye Electric in North Dakota has installed 200 solar-powered livestock water-pumping systems to serve remote pasture wells, saving the co-op thousands of dollars in line construction costs. Building a power line to serve a well averages $20,000 per mile. A solar water pumping system costs $4,000.
Colorado-based United Power has devised a system that eliminates the headaches and expense of installing a home solar system. Under its Sol Partners program, members can pay $1,050 to have a 21-watt panel added to an array on the grounds of the co-op’s headquarters in a Denver suburb. United Power estimates those who join can earn a 3-percent annual return on their investment, or roughly $32 in electric bill credits. The co-op covers maintenance and liability costs.
“I think a lot of consumers come into solar thinking it’s the answer—and that they won’t have electric bills anymore,” says United Power’s Laurel Eller. “This program establishes a living laboratory for demonstrating what they realistically can expect.”
Even with such innovative projects, less than 1 MW of electric co-op power nationwide comes from the sun. But a project launched by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association in Colorado will change that. The generation and transmission co-op plans to have a 30-MW solar facility completed by the end of the year. When complete, 500,000 photovoltaic panels on a sunny patch of northeastern New Mexico will generate enough power to serve 9,000 homes.
Another Log on the Fire
Electric co-ops boast a capacity of 255 MW of biomass, which consists of any biological material that can be burned as fuel to produce electricity.
In 2003, the Port of Tillamook Bay constructed a waste digester to biologically process manure from 4,000 of the county’s 30,000 dairy cows. The facility biologically breaks down the manure, converting the resulting natural methane gas to electricity.
The Coffin Butte Resource Project—owned and operated by Power Resources Cooperative, with support by PNGC Power—began operating in 1995, converting gas from a landfill near Corvallis, Oregon, into energy. The 9,000 square-foot plant has a generating capacity of 5.66 MW. The regional landfill takes in about 550,000 tons of waste a year, providing a steady source of landfill gas.
Green Power Electric Membership Corp., a partnership of 38 Georgia co-ops, is purchasing 17 MW from a waste wood-fired biomass generator. A former Fruit of the Loom manufacturing facility houses the power plant, which is creating nearly 100 jobs in a community economically crippled in 2006 when the garment maker left town.
“We will generate cleaner, greener energy, which on its own has tremendous merit,” says Green Power’s Michael Whiteside. “But when you factor in the refurbishing of an abandoned plant for a useful purpose and the revitalization of a small town economy, the value becomes untold.”