Co-ops embrace alternative energy sources
When a master mechanic sets out to fix a problem, he or she uses every tool in the toolbox. This reliance on the right tools for the job is what sets the master apart from the amateur.
As Missouri’s electric co-ops work to meet the growing energy needs of the membership, they plan to follow the master’s approach. And increasingly, that means turning to renewable resources when those options make sense.
“There’s a lot of interest generally in renewable energy,” says Don Shaw, manager of Central Electric Power Cooperative in Jefferson City. “In as much as we can find or develop a resource that provides renewable energy, we have aggressively pursued the opportunity to do so.”
Reserves of electricity are being used up at a rapid pace as more members move to rural areas and current members build bigger homes and add more electric-powered appliances. Most of the electricity sold by the state’s electric co-ops comes from coal and natural gas, and that will continue to ensure reliability and affordability. But renewable sources of power are finding their way into the mix.
Today, nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 900-plus electric cooperatives supply electricity produced by renewable resources. That renewable energy makes up about 11 percent of the electricity sold by electric cooperatives. That figure is three times the amount marketed by investor-owned utilities. And Missouri is no exception.
Early in their history, Missouri’s electric cooperatives built their own power plants when outside sources of power proved unreliable. They also built transmission lines that connected these plants to the federal hydropower projects in southern Missouri.
This allowed electric cooperatives to use clean, renewable hydropower from these dams, and it gave the government a way to market this power. Missouri’s co-ops can tap into 478 megawatts of low-cost, emissions-free hydropower, which is used primarily during periods of high demand.
The Missouri rural electric transmission grid consists of 9,217 miles of line. This grid makes possible other ventures into renewable and alternative forms of energy, which are often located far from population centers.
In 2006, Associated Electric, which provides power to most of Missouri’s electric co-ops, agreed to buy the output of Missouri’s first wind energy farm, Bluegrass Ridge in King City. That led to two more wind projects.
|Wind turbines generate electricity for cooperative members at the Bluegrass Ridge Wind Energy Farm in King City. Increasingly, renewable sources of power are finding their way into the cooperative power mix.
What made this possible was the presence of transmission lines owned by N.W. Power, a transmission co-op headquartered in Cameron. N.W.’s lines neatly coincided with the windiest spots in the state. That was fortunate because alternative forms of energy do the most good when it can be moved where it is most needed.
Bluegrass Ridge was officially dedicated in September, and continues to flow renewable power from wind over the cooperative network. The other two projects, dubbed Conception and Cow Branch, will be completed soon.
For its role in the project, Associated Electric was named “Wind Cooperative of the Year” by the U.S. Department of Energy.
But renewable sources of cooperative power don’t stop with the wind. Central Electric Power Cooperative’s Chamois Power Plant has been the test bed for several promising renewable-energy experiments.
In 2003, Central Power used walnut shells destined for a landfill to generate electricity. The shells, which are normally sold as an industrial abrasive, were rendered worthless when a tornado struck Hammons Products Co. in Stockton. For about a week, the plant burned the shells, generating 4,000 megawatt-hours of electricity.
“We were able to keep that from going to the landfill,” Shaw says of the 3,500 tons of walnut shells his co-op used. “We think there are some other opportunities out there that would include fuels that would otherwise end up being put in a landfill or not being utilized at all.”
Adopting a “never-say-no” attitude when it comes to renewables, Shaw’s creative staff has generated electricity with biomass options such as sawdust and corn cobs. “We’ve been open to a multitude of things,” Shaw says. “We’ve tried things that didn’t work too well, most notably our corn cob initiative. We thought that had potential and it did. The problem we ran into was the fuel wasn’t pure enough. There were too many stalks mixed in with the cobs.”
Don Shaw, manager of Central Electric Power Cooperative in Jefferson City, stands next to a pile of walnut shells that were used to generate electricity at the Chamois Power Plant in 2003.
A study expected to be completed soon will show whether converting the boiler on the Chamois plant’s Unit 1 to burn biomass fuels makes economic sense. If that idea works, farmers could have a new market for parts of their crop currently left in the field.
Elsewhere, “distributed generation” projects installed by co-op members also are adding to the mix, albeit in a small way. Projects, ranging from a 500 kilowatt cogenerator to a 2.4 kilowatt solar project in Weston, put excess electricity on co-op lines.
These projects often don’t provide enough energy to pay for their costs, but changes in technology could make them a valuable part of the mix.
While alternative forms of energy will continue to add to the generating mix for your cooperative, to ensure reliability and affordability, coal and natural gas will continue to provide most of the electricity used by cooperative members.
Wind power, for example, faces several challenges as an energy resource. Wind only blows 30 to 40 percent of the time, and often it blows the least when it is most needed. Associated predicts wind will provide 1 to 2 percent of total energy in 2008. It’s unlikely any new hydropower resources will be built. And other options such as solar are just too costly.
Still, where it makes sense, electric co-ops will do whatever they can to promote renewables.
“The future is going to involve a lot more renewable energy projects,” Shaw says. “We need to be a part of that progress. It just makes sense, and it’s the right thing to do.”