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The Realities of Renewable Power

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There’s certainly a buzz in rural circles these days about renewable power. Wind farms, for example, are generally built on wide-open spaces or ridgetops; methane gas from livestock waste can be burned to produce power; trees, grass, and crop stalks can be shoveled into boilers or converted to other forms of fuel.

Because most renewable energy projects take root in rural America, electric co-ops are at the forefront of this new and exciting wave of generation technology. Currently, co-ops lead electric utilities in renewable power generation, with a full 11 percent of co-op power coming from hydro and other renewable resources, compared to 9 percent for the industry as a whole.

Co-ops own and operate about 1,000 MW of renewable projects utilizing biomass, wind, solar, and small-scale hydropower. And 750 rural electric systems offer green power to their members. Those are numbers to be proud of.

We are doing everything we can to make renewable power a viable part of our energy mix, but there are very real hurdles to overcome before that 11 percent can become 15, 20, or 25 percent in coming years.

For one, construction costs for electricity generation are going up across the board, and renewable sources are no exception. Three years ago it was estimated that a wind farm would cost about $1,000 per kW of capacity – today that price tag has doubled. Costs for installation and operation of solar panels can run five times higher than a traditional coal plant of comparable size.

            How do we get those costs down? Research and development can help to some extent, and the Cooperative Research Network is working with the U.S. Department of Energy on various projects. Government programs, such as Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs), are another solution. The bonds offer electric co-ops interest-free loans for financing renewable power projects, and the U.S. Treasury Department has reserved $450 million in CREBs for electric co-ops through the end of 2008.

            Another hurdle involves getting renewable power to where it can be used. True, most renewable resources are abundant in rural areas, but that also means they’re far from the concentrated power needs of big cities. New transmission lines will need to go in to address this problem, and related costs can add up in a hurry.

A third drawback can cause major headaches for control room operators, charged with matching available power to demand. Most renewable sources are intermittent: the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. A fossil fuel-fired power plant, on the other hand, will produce “baseload” power as long as fuel remains available. In the case of a renewable resource like solar, though, an overcast afternoon can leave a gap in available power that needs to be filled.

Improved technology offers one way around this problem, making it possible, for example, to store excess electricity produced on a sunny day. When a storm cloud rolls up, that stored power would be ready and waiting. Co-ops are constantly making advancements in storage technology, although real breakthroughs have yet to be realized.

            Although some policymakers will try to speed up the process of getting renewable power on-line, all of us need to provide an informed, thoughtful approach. Let’s be realistic about the value of renewable energy, and be realistic about its associated costs and benefits.

Support for renewable power must be consistent with providing safe, reliable, and affordable service to you, our members. Co-ops will develop the renewable resources that make the most sense for us, geographically and economically. And we will work to ensure that those paying the freight for such technologies also reap the benefits.

Renewable energy will remain a key part of rural development efforts, our nation’s energy security, and a valuable asset to consider. But as not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric co-ops, we will encourage elected officials to make sure that public policy doesn’t get ahead of available technology, and doesn’t impose a hardship on consumers. We will seek real-world results that benefit the environment, our rural communities, and you.

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