The Right Thing to Do: Electric Co-Ops Pursuing Cutting-Edge Renewable Energy, Conservation Project

By Mayberry, Anne | Rural Cooperatives, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Right Thing to Do: Electric Co-Ops Pursuing Cutting-Edge Renewable Energy, Conservation Project


Mayberry, Anne, Rural Cooperatives


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Among the challenges facing the electric utility industry today is the need to address climate change. Increased energy efficiency and conservation, combined with alternative fuels and technology, will all play a role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and dependence on traditional fuels.

Efforts to make significant improvements in clean-coal technology are underway because coal is still among the most reliable and affordable sources of baseload power. Indeed, coal is the source of about 50 percent of our nation's electricity. Rural electric cooperatives, owned by the consumers they serve, recognize the need to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions without huge run ups in electric rates.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) earlier this year released a study on how technology can reduce the cost of cutting carbon dioxide emissions while meeting the growing demand for electrical power. While much of the technology still needs to be developed for efficient commercial use, EPRI points out that energy efficiency and renewable energy projects are the first steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

"Rural electric cooperatives are among the leaders in the electric utility industry when it comes to implementing innovative alternative energy programs," says James Andrew, administrator of USDA Rural Development's Rural Utilities Program. "Cooperatives are owned by their members and answer to their communities. They want to find ways to reduce carbon emissions while continuing to provide safe, reliable and affordable electric power."

As a result, phrases such as "carbon sequestration," "biomass," and "methane digestors," uncommon a generation ago, are now used on a regular basis.

Basin Electric's renewable energy

Basin Electric Power Cooperative in North Dakota has a history of developing alternative energy, conservation and efficiency programs. Basin Electric currently has research projects underway on both carbon sequestration and clean coal.

"In 2005, our consumer members passed a resolution to have 10 percent of generating capacity provided by renewables," Daryl Hill, spokesman at Basin Electric, explains. "Many of our members are farmers and ranchers. They support strong environmental standards."

Basin Electric's subsidiary, Dakota Gasification Co., is involved in the largest carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration project in the world at its Great Plains Synfuels Plant, near Beulah, N.D. It is the only commercial-scale coal gasification plant in the country.

Because carbon capture technology for coal-fired electric utilities is still new, Basin Electric is planning to evaluate carbon dioxide removal technologies for coal-based power plants at its Antelope Valley Station, also near Beulah, to determine which, if any, are technically, economically and commercially feasible.

Basin Electric and other electric utilities with older coal-fired, baseload plants are assessing their investments because continuing to supply consumers with reliable, low-cost energy while meeting environmental responsibilities requires a balance. "We have an obligation to serve our members," Basin Electric CEO Ron Harper notes. "We also have an obligation to grow responsibly and cleanly. We are committed to responding to the world's need to reduce carbon emissions. It won't be without challenges, but it's the right thing to do."

Support from USDA Rural Development

USDA Rural Development's Utilities Program is providing financial assistance in the quest to increase use of alternative sources of electric power. It made a $36 million loan to finance a heat-recovery project that captures waste heat from pipeline compressors. The project will generate more than 20 megawatts of electricity.

Another Utilities Program loan recently helped support a breakthrough project to produce hydrogen from renewable resources, such as wind. …

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