Electric Co-ops Show Renewable Energy Generates Big Benefits

A key initiative undertaken by the 25x’25 Alliance in recent years is aimed at spotlighting and supporting rural electric cooperatives that are implementing distributed renewable energy generation and the business models that enable that generation.

To help sustain the tremendous growth of distributed generation projects undertaken by co-ops, the Alliance’s Energy for Economic Growth (EEG) team focuses on pilot projects that not only produce renewable energy, but also offer important ecosystem service benefits such as carbon sequestration and improvements in soil, water and air quality.

The Alliance, which was founded a decade ago to explore agriculture, forestry and rural America’s role in the nation’s energy future, was in Orlando this week sharing the EEG’s mission with rural co-op executives from around the country attending the annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA).

There are a number of factors that are driving a transition to low- and no-carbon energy alternatives, including a growing demand for energy, the declining cost of wind and solar power production in the face of variable costs of fossil fuels, changing customer needs and interests, changing political dynamics and an aging infrastructure.

Rural electric cooperatives can help lead this transformation to a cheaper, more reliable and home-grown energy future. Co-ops’ core mission is in alignment with efforts to provide energy alternatives and they understand and possess the flexibility to implement new business models. The also appreciate the fact that understanding and meeting member needs is key to their success. Co-ops recognize that programs that promote renewable energy from its members strengthen member loyalty. Rural electric operations are well suited to accept this new mission and become the new heroes of a changing energy future.

Co-ops have a ready grasp on the value of clean energy alternatives. Using a diverse mix of fuels to supply members with safe, reliable and affordable power, renewable resources – primarily hydropower, but also wind, biomass, solar and geothermal ‑ provide 11 percent of cooperative power nationwide. That compares with nine percent for the nation’s entire electric utility sector, according to the NRECA.

Among those co-ops at the forefront of this transition is the Jasper County Rural Electric Membership Cooperative (REMC) in Indiana. Located in the northwestern part of the state, about halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago, the Jasper County REMC provides electricity to 8,900 homes and businesses. The co-op’s service area is home to 14 dairy operations, each having at least 4,000 cows. The co-op works with 12 of the dairies in a cogeneration environment. Seven of the dairies have anaerobic digesters.

The Jasper County REMC, which was one of several co-ops spotlighted by the Alliance’s EEG work group and invited on a 2012 renewable energy tour of Germany (a world leader in the development and advancement of clean energy), has demonstrated that co-ops can use renewable energy to drive economic growth and overcome environmental challenges, particularly those posed by the diary operations in northwestern Indiana.

Bryan Washburn, the CEO and general manager of the Jasper County REMC, was in Orlando to share with participants his presentation, aptly titled, “Cooperative Partnership with Renewables.”

The co-op executive spoke of the seven dairies whose anaerobic digesters collectively generate some 6.1 megawatts of electricity. The digesters, he says, also help address the environmental issues that come with 72,000 dairy cows being located within a 10-mile radius through odor control and nitrate containment, not to mention a big reduction in flies.

The role of methane captured from these dairy operations is not just important because it serves as the feedstock for the digesters to produce electricity, Washburn says, but also because methane is a pollutant that is 21 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon. Yet, in some instances, the technology that harnesses this damaging gas to produce energy also offers a byproduct that is used for animal bedding.

Washburn acknowledges that challenges remain, including worker education and safety, the harmonization of business models and the establishment of fair and equitable rates. But he speaks for all distributed generation advocates when he points out that these projects allow the agricultural producer to expand into the future, provide jobs now and down the road, and generate power that can be dispatched when needed.

The 25x’25 Alliance urges policy makers and regulators to understand the benefits of distributed generation as demonstrated by the Jasper County REMC and other rural cooperatives, including savings on expensive and often polluting conventional power and power plants; reduced investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure; reduced electricity lost during transportation over power lines, given that distributed power is generated and consumed locally; and savings on the cost of meeting renewable energy requirements.

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