by Jim McCarty
When a master mechanic sets out to fix a problem, he or she will use every tool in the toolbox.
As Associated Electric Cooperative (AECI), power supplier for Access Energy Cooperatives, works to meet the growing energy needs of the membership, they plan to follow a similar approach. And, that means turning to renewable resources when those options make sense.
“In as much as we can find or develop a resource that provides renewable energy, we have aggressively pursued the opportunity to do so,” says Don Shaw, manager of Central Electric Power Cooperative in Jefferson City.
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 AECI 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% of the nation’s 900-plus electric cooperatives supply electricity produced by renewable resources. That renewable energy makes up about 11% of the electricity sold by electric cooperatives. That figure is three times the amount marketed by investor-owned utilities.
Early in their history, AECI 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. AECI can tap into 478 megawatts of
low-cost, emissions-free hydropower, which is used primarily during periods of high demand.
In 2006, AECI agreed to buy the output of Missouri’s first wind energy farm, Bluegrass Ridge in King City. That led to two more wind projects in the windiest spots in the state.Bluegrass Ridge continues to flow renewable power from wind over the cooperative network. The other two projects will be completed soon.
For its role in the project, AECI was named “Wind Cooperative of the Year” by the U.S. Department of Energy. But renewable sources of cooperative power does not stop with the wind. In 2003, AECI 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. For about a week, the plant burned the shells, generating 4,000 megawatt-hours of electricity.
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.”
Elsewhere, “distributed generation” projects installed by co-op members also are adding to the mix, albeit in a small way. 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. AECI 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. “It just makes sense, and it’s the right thing to do.”