Cover Story

Earth-Friendly Energy

Story by Bill Sherrod, Editor

 

Electric cooperatives are working toward a “greener” tomorrow.

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As Kermit the Frog once famously proclaimed, it’s not easy being green.

But it seems that green is where the world’s headed. At least, in an environmental sense, we here in the U.S. are moving inexorably toward a profound awareness of and concern with things green, in everything from power generation to laundry detergent.

The idea, simply, is to do what we can to help Mother Earth, by reducing carbon emissions, by helping to keep the air and water clean — in general, making the world a better place for future generations.

And of course, while we’re at it, we have to ensure that there’s an adequate supply of electricity to meet our burgeoning demand for games, gadgets and all things electric.

So what does this mean for you, as a member-owner of an electric cooperative utility in the Commonwealth of Virginia?

What is green power?

“‘Green power’ typically refers to a source of energy produced by a renewable type of fuel,” says Lisa Johnson, senior vice president of power supply for Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC). Twelve electric cooperatives, including 10 of Virginia’s 13, receive their wholesale power supply from ODEC.

Renewable fuels, Johnson continues, can be grown, such as wood, switch grass, or other “biomass” materials; they can occur naturally in the environment, such as sun, wind or tides; or they can come from recycling waste, such as the methane gas created naturally in landfills and animal waste.

And why is green power important? What about green power makes it something that we should pursue?

“If you can find sources of fuel that are renewable, you can decrease the need to dip into finite resources,” notes Johnson. “Plus, people who oppose burning fossil fuels contend that if you’re not burning them, you’ll reduce certain point-source emissions like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury.”

Finally, Johnson adds, “Renew­able resources are things we can find around us that can help us move away from reliance on foreign energy sources.”

Pete Gallini, director of power supply for ODEC, adds that additional benefits may result from expanded use of green-power fuel sources. For example, one effect of planting trees and other flora to produce biomass might be that even more carbon di­ox­ide is removed from the atmosphere, by the very plants that are being cultivated as biomass fuel sources.

Renewables Pose Challenges

“It’s a challenge to find these sources of fuel in every part of the country,” Johnson points out. And there are complex variables involved in determining the real value of a fuel source.

For example, wind and solar power are good fuel sources, but they only happen when they happen. If the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining, there’s no electricity being generated.

“One of the big challenges with renewables is finding consistency,” Johnson continues. “A forest fire can deplete the supply of wood waste (from a cutover tract) after a contract has already been made to use that same wastewood as a renewable fuel resource. Some of these renewable resources have significant risk as a constant, reliable fuel supply.”

And according to Gallini, “The reason many of these fuel resources aren’t used more right now is that they’re more expensive than traditional fuel sources. But the cost of some of these alternative fuel forms has been coming down the past decade, so their use has become more common.”

About half of the power that ODEC’s 12 member cooperatives require is provided by generation assets it owns, including a 50-percent interest in the coal-fired Clover Power Station and an 11.6-percent interest in North Anna Nuclear Power Station. ODEC also owns gas-fired peaking turbines in Louisa County, Fauquier County, and Cecil County, Md.

For the portion of its members’ power requirements that it does not own, ODEC negotiates contracts from various suppliers in the energy market. Some of these suppliers are “green,” and more green power is becoming available.

In addition to a small amount of hydro-electric energy the Virginia electric cooperatives receive from Southeast Power Administration dams, ODEC purchases some of its power from a landfill gas generator in Northern Virginia, and in the past has had some wastewood generation, according to Johnson.

“We’re currently exploring opportunities for energy produced from waste­wood, animal waste, landfill gas, switch grass (biomass), and additional conventional hydro power,” she adds. “Our challenge is in balancing cost and reliability with the value of the green resource.”

Another Reason to ‘Buy Locally’

Physical proximity is a very im­portant consideration in developing reliable “green” energy resources. “Most of the project developers we’re talking to are in our area,” notes Gallini.

It’s important, for many reasons, to try and buy locally when looking at renewable energy resources, Johnson adds. For example, using a local re­new­able resource — such as wastewood from a cutover tract near a wastewood-burning generator — means that you don’t have to pay as much for transporting the renewable resource from farther afield; plus, you save a finite resource, the fuel needed to transport the wastewood. And there is a reduction in emissions from transportation when the source is nearby.

“Biomass as a ‘green’ fuel resource probably makes the most sense for us,” Johnson adds. “Wastewood, switch grass, landfill gas, and animal waste — much of this fits right in with the agricultural profile of many of our co-ops’ members,” she notes.

“We’re also looking at the concept of participating in a national renewable-energy cooperative,” Johnson continues.

And every cooperative in Virginia is actively working toward improving its energy-efficiency profile, from encouraging use of compact-fluorescent lamps and energy audits to promoting peak-demand energy reduction through use of water-heater-switch programs, Johnson adds.

“If we’re doing our job and fulfilling the cooperative mission, we have to consider reliability, environmental balance, and cost effectiveness in everything we do relative to power supply,” Johnson says.

And since there isn’t an easy, perfect solution for balancing these three elements, “Our job is ensuring that we have the best possible pieces of all three of these for our members,” Johnson says.

Kermit’s famous lament — his amphibian angst — may indeed be true in today’s world: it’s not easy being green.

But it’s a worthy goal, and one that Virginia ’s consumer-owned electric cooperatives are actively pursuing.

 

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