Stepping Up to the Plate: Basin Electric Sees Wind Power as Key Part of Multi-Pronged Strategy to Reduce Greenhouse Gases

By Thompson, Stephen | Rural Cooperatives, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Stepping Up to the Plate: Basin Electric Sees Wind Power as Key Part of Multi-Pronged Strategy to Reduce Greenhouse Gases


Thompson, Stephen, Rural Cooperatives


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For Basin Electric Power Cooperative, wind power is just one of many technologies being explored to reduce the co-op's carbon footprint. Basin Electric, a generation and transmission utility co-op based in Bismarck, N.D., is pursuing an aggressive effort on many fronts to meet future demands for electric power while reducing emissions of C[O.sub.2].

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With the U.S. government getting serious about reducing carbon emissions, the cooperative has decided to try to get out ahead of the curve. "We recognize that carbon is an issue, and that we need to move forward on it," says Floyd Robb, vice president for communications and marketing support. At Basin's 2005 annual meeting, members passed a resolution calling for a full 10 percent of their power demands to be met by renewable, or otherwise "green," sources by 2010.

A study on the issue by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) offers no "silver bullets," says Robb. "The only way to meet expected requirements is to use a whole range of methods." The cooperative has stepped up to the plate, participating in projects that include carbon sequestration, waste-heat recovery and coal gasification, as well as wind generation. "We believe we're on the cutting edge," he says.

Basin Electric currently has a total wind generating capacity of 136 megawatts, but recently launched an effort to add up to another 300 megawatts-worth of wind power.

Storing wind-generated power

The co-op is making progress on an even more futuristic goal: a way to store and use wind power generated during periods of low demand.

Basin's wind power is currently generated by a mix of turbines owned by the coop and other turbines owned by independent wind developers. The new turbines will be wholly owned by Basin Electric, with the project scheduled for construction in three stages.

The first 99 megawatts will be generated by turbines going up near Minot, N.D. Sites for the second stage are still being explored, while the third stage is still in the initial planning phase. Utility-scale wind turbines currently available each have a capacity of 1.5 megawatts; so producing 99 megawatts requires a wind farm of at least 66 of the immense structures.

Projected cost of each of the first two stages is between $200 and $210 million, to be financed through loans guaranteed by USDA Rural Development.

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The problem with wind generation, of course, is that the wind doesn't always blow when you need power, and it often blows when you don't need it. There is currently no feasible way to store electricity generated during low-demand periods, but Basin Electric has invested $2 million to explore a practical alternative, as part of the wind-to-hydrogen consortium of cooperatives and other institutions.

At a site owned by North Dakota State University near Minot, N.D, excess power from nearby Basin Electric wind turbines is being used to generate hydrogen gas. The power is run at low voltage through an electrolyzer, which uses electric current to break water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored under pressure and is used to operate vehicles configured to burn the gas in their engines.

The advantage of hydrogen as a fuel is that it produces only water when burned, offering a completely non-polluting way to power vehicles. At the moment, it's one of the few ways to store non-peak energy.

The electrolyzer is hooked up to the power grid, says Robb, but power use is controlled so that only the amount generated by the wind is used to produce gas. At the moment, the co-op fuels three "flex-fuel" pickup trucks with hydrogen. Gas from the project is also used to run a tractor owned by the university in Fargo.

"You can put your nose right next to the exhaust pipe and smell nothing," says Robb.

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