Renewable Energy’s Impact on Co-ops

By Kristen Wright, senior editor

Some people make lemonade when handed lemons. In Wisconsin, they make electricity from cow poop.

Do some manure math, and that’s a whole lot of electricity potential. The state has more than 1.27 million dairy cows on 13,000 farms, according to Wisconsin Dairy Data.

As renewable portfolio standards, environmental activists and businesses that stand to profit call for cleaner power, renewable energy is becoming a reality across the U.S., all the way down to rural electric cooperatives. Some of the co-ops are running toward renewables without major hurdles, some are encountering obstacles, and nearly all are generating stuff on the side: stories worth telling.

At Dairyland Power Cooperative, headquartered in La Crosse, Wis., for example, the renewable portfolio stands at 12.2 percent–about the same as the total U.S. renewable portfolio, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). At Dairyland, that breaks down to 6.1 percent biomass, 3.3 percent wind, 1.8 percent landfill gas and 1 percent hydroelectric.

The cooperative is a national leader in animal waste to energy, or what it calls “cow power.” Dairyland purchases renewable energy produced from six anaerobic digester facilities on large dairies throughout the state, which can power hundreds of homes, said Katie Thomson, Dairyland spokeswoman. Typically the dairies are home to some 1,000 cattle. But more recently, Dairyland began examining smaller-scale manure digesters on farms with as few as 100 cattle, starting with the Peters Family Farm near Chaseburg, Wis.

In the 2010 census, Chaseburg logged a human population of 204.

There are that many cows–actually 46 more–at the organic farm Wayne Peters owns and operates with sons Rory and Roger.

“We try to milk 210 in that facility at a time,” Peters said.

Even at small dairies, manure problems can pile up quickly: odor, flies and waste disposal to name a few.

A Wisconsin company transformed the farm’s manure situation, though. In 2010, Universal Sanitary Equipment Manufacturing Co. (USEMCO) received a $200,000 state competitive agriculture grant to implement small-scale anaerobic digestion systems in Wisconsin. The company applied the grant to building and operating a $1 million digester on the Peters Family Farm.

Peters, a farmer since ’59, said he’s been doing “out of the ordinary” things his whole life. The manure digester seemed like a good fit for his dairy, especially when at least one other small dairy turned down the project.

By 2012, Dairyland had entered a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the farm to purchase renewable energy from the manure digester, Dairyland’s Thomson said.

“This is definitely the first in our area that would cater to a small-herd farm,” she said. “We’re pretty excited to be a part of that.”

The two-building digester system includes a 12,000-gallon underground concrete collection tank and a similar mix tank, a 12-by-40-foot steel digester that holds 30,000 gallons, the effluent tank, a separation system and a 45-kW generator.

One building contains the underground storage tanks and separator. The other building houses the digester tank, generator and control systems.

In simplified form, the digester system works like this: First, cow manure in the barn is collected and stored in one of the feed tanks, where anaerobic bacteria feed on the manure.

“We put about 6,000 gallons a day through it,” Peters said. “One person does it night and morning.”

Then the contents are heated to 125 F, and the process produces methane gas that powers generators and creates electricity. Typical biogas production ranges from 16,000 to 23,000 cubic feet per day depending on feedstock blends, but production has peaked at 39,000 cubic feet per day, according to a 2013 University of Wisconsin-Madison case study of the farm’s digester.

The co-op hopes to site similar manure digesters at other small farms, Thomson said.

The digester has created several revenue streams for the farm. It generates enough renewable electricity for the dairy plus some 20 area homes, and it also creates weed- and pathogen-free mulch for livestock bedding and nutrient-rich fertilizer that may be used at the farm or sold.

Across the Nation

Dairyland is just one of more than 900 not-for-profit rural electric cooperatives and public power districts in 47 states that are members of NRECA, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The utilities provide retail electric service to more than 42 million consumers. And according to the organization, 94 percent of its distribution members–793 of 838–offer renewable energy options. NRECA data shows:

  • U.S. co-ops own and purchase more than 5.7 GW of renewable capacity in addition to roughly 10 GW of preference power contracts with federal hydroelectric facilities.
  • U.S. co-op retail sales account for some 12 percent of total U.S. electricity sales.
  • Co-ops own more than 1 GW of renewable energy generation and have long-term PPAs for nearly 4.7 GW.
  • Including federal hydropower, co-ops own or purchase more than 10 percent of U.S. renewable capacity, including more than 9 percent of U.S. wind capacity.
  • The IRS has approved $900 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREB) allocations for cooperative renewable energy development.


Hydroelectric power generation led U.S. renewable generation in 2012 at 56 percent, according to the EIA. On Kauai, however, most of the hydro generation remains untapped. Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), which has some 32,700 electric accounts, wants to change that.

Kauai’s remote location in the Pacific Ocean brings unique power challenges, most notably having to generate all of its electric power on the island.

Right now, 92 percent of KIUC’s electricity comes from burning imported fossil fuels, none of which is coal or natural gas, according to the utility.

KIUC plans to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2023 to reduce its power cost, decrease its use of imported oil and increase the amount of energy generated from the island’s own resources.

The utility’s website states KUIC has paid as much as $100 million in recent years for petroleum fuel.

“While it is unlikely renewable energy will dramatically reduce utility bills, KIUC’s goal is to stabilize prices, be competitive with Hawaii’s other islands and disconnect electricity cost from volatile oil prices,” the website states.

And the co-op has a plan to do that. Nearly a dozen hydropower and solar projects could generate more than 60 percent of the island’s electricity, according to KIUC. The only problem? The projects aren’t built.

They aren’t even approved.

“Hydro is an important part of our strategy to lower rates and increase the use of renewable energy to cover at least 50 percent of demand,” said Jim Kelly, KIUC spokesman. “We’re confident we can make it work, but it is a very long, complex process.”

Since 2011, KIUC and its consultants assessed 12 potential hydroelectric sites. Six passed preliminary screening based on economic and technical feasibility, and four remain under consideration.

The west side of the island holds the most promise for two hydro developments. Both are on state land. One uses water from the Kokee Ditch and Puu Opae Reservoir, and the second uses water from the Kekaha Ditch.

“A 4-MW project on the Wailua River is also feasible technically and financially,” according to a KIUC statement. “Research and development efforts are focused on finding options for minimizing and mitigating potential aesthetic and cultural impacts.

“Similar concerns exist on the North Shore relating to a potential 3.5-MW hydro project on the Hanalei River. The project is technically viable, but KIUC has indefinitely deferred its development research here in order to pursue more promising locations.”

In addition to its talks with the state about projects on public land, KIUC is in discussions with landowners about new or expanded hydroelectric operations on private land, Kelly said.

“I wish I could tell you we’re close to breaking ground, but that’s still years away,” Kelly said. “All of the hydro projects we are looking at developing involve multiple state agencies, and at this point, that’s what we’re concentrating on: lining up support among the agencies that control the resources. Once that happens we will need to do some pretty comprehensive community engagement.”

The KIUC website states that the cost of hydroelectric power, when it is paid for over the next 30 years, would be about 90 percent cheaper than the utility’s fossil fuel costs.


It’s much easier to generate wind power near Bismark, N.D., headquarters to Basin Electric Power Cooperative. At the end of 2013, the utility had some 713 MW of wind generation with plans to add 376 MW by the end of 2015.

Basin Electric on Dec. 20 signed a PPA associated with the development of a new South Dakota wind project co-owned by Fagen Inc. of Granite Falls, Minn., and the principals of Dakota Plains Energy of Aberdeen, S.D. The farm should be operational by the end of 2015.

“The Campbell County Wind Farm is proud to have been selected to provide 98 megawatts of clean, affordable energy to nearly 30,000 homes in the Upper Midwest,” said Rob Johnson, president and principal of Dakota Plains Energy, in a statement. “We are pleased for the opportunity to showcase South Dakota’s superior wind energy assets along with providing the local economy with a positive impact for years to come.”

The previous month, Basin Electric announced it would enter into two PPAs for an additional 278 MW of wind power from North Dakota projects that also will be operational by the end of 2015.

Basin Electric CEO and General Manager Andrew M. Serri said in a statement that he is happy to work with a developer in a neighboring state.

“The cornerstone of a strong generation portfolio is diversity,” he said. “This project will add to our robust mix of coal, gas, wind, waste heat, nuclear and oil.”

In February 2011, the Basin Electric subsidiary Prairie Winds SD 1 commissioned the largest U.S. wind project operated by a cooperative: Crow Lake Wind Project in central South Dakota. The 162-MW project consists of 108 GE 1.5-MW turbines: 100 owned by PrairieWinds SD1 Inc.; one owned by Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI) for training students in wind technology; and seven owned by local investors known as South Dakota Wind Partners. Basin Electric operates the project and purchases the electricity generated from the MTI and Wind Partners turbines, according to the co-op.

PrairieWinds ND1 owns two North Dakota projects: the 77 turbines of PrairieWinds 1, commissioned in 2009, and Minot Wind, which consists of two 1.3-MW turbines and three 1.5-MW turbines. Both are operated by Basin Electric and located south of Minot, N.D.

Basin Electric also owns and operates a wind project in Chamberlain, S.D., with two 1.3-MW turbines.

The cooperative purchases power from several wind energy projects:

ࢗ  NextEra Energy Wind Energy Centers:

  • Edgeley Wind Project (North Dakota): 40 MW
  • Wilton Wind Project (North Dakota): 49.5 MW
  • Wilton Wind 2 (North Dakota): 49.5 MW
  • Baldwin Wind Project (North Dakota): 100 MW
  • Hyde County Wind Project (South Dakota): 40 MW
  • Day County Wind Project (South Dakota): 99 MW

ࢗ  Corn Belt Power Cooperative wind resources in Iowa:

  • Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative

ࢗ  Superior Wind Project: 10.5 MW
ࢗ  Lakota Wind Project: 10.5 MW

  • Hancock County: 7.3 MW
  • Crosswinds: 16.8 MW

ࢗ  Wind projects owned by others in South Dakota and Minnesota.

Solar Water Heating Systems

In Pahrump, Nev., the renewable of choice is solar. Valley Electric Association Inc. (VEA), an electric cooperative there, wanted to find an easy way to shave peak load. In 2009, members came up with a domestic solar water heating program.

“This is something that our members came to Valley Electric and said, “ËœWe want to do something green. We want you to help us.’ And we said, “ËœOK, what is it you want us to do?'” said Susan Fisher, VEA executive vice president of government relations and marketing.

VEA listened and acted.

The program provides VEA members with improved access to energy-saving solar water heating systems by offering on-bill financing with no interest charges and no down payments, Fisher said.

The co-op has installed nearly 800 of the systems since the program’s inception. The results include reduced carbon emissions and as much as $500 in energy cost savings for participants each year. That’s on top of reducing peak energy costs for VEA, which holds down costs for its members.

The co-op recently received a $5,000 grant from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy to help VEA offset additional costs associated with converting water heating systems from propane to solar. The conversion often costs between $400 and $700 more than converting from electric to solar, Fisher said. It’s the second year VEA has received the grant for the conversions. Pete Konesky, energy program manager for the Energy Office, said VEA received the grants because the co-op is committed to providing its members with innovative programs designed to reduce energy consumption.

“VEA has been extremely responsive to the energy needs of its members,” Konesky said in a statement. “This grant is just a way of supporting VEA’s forward-thinking activities.”

The grant is enough to fund conversions for 10 to 12 homes in the cooperative’s service area, and the program is getting attention across the U.S., Fisher said.

“We’ve gotten calls from other co-ops and investor-owned utilities, as well,” she said. “We’ll open our books–“ËœHere’s how you do it.’ We’ve even hosted workshops.”

Because of its efforts regarding the solar water heating program, in 2012 VEA received the NRECA National Community Serve Award for Energy Efficiency.

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