Homegrown Power Plants

Most on-site generation exists because the consumer cannot afford to be without power.

December 2017

Before electric cooperatives began stringing power lines through rural America, many farm families made do with their ownsources of electric generation. Noisy and often unreliable technologies such as steam engines, windmills, battery sets and ram pumps were the only options available to make electricity a part of daily life.

Today, the cutting-edge cousins of these early generators can be spotted in all manner of settings: an emergency diesel generator behind a hospital; a solar panel on your neighbor’s roof; or perhaps even a new wind turbine at the business or educational facility down the road.

These mini power plants, called distributed generation or on-site power, are located at or near where electricity gets used. They currently make up only about 1 percent of all electricity generated in the United States. For consumers, distributed generation — with a typical capacity of no greater than 10 megawatts — can stand in as emergency backup power, provide greater independence, make an environmental statement, and in some cases can decrease electric utility bills.

“Most on-site generation exists because the consumer cannot afford to be without power,” explains Jay Morrison, senior regulatory counsel for the Arlington, Virginia-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “If power goes out at a farm, there’s no water. So it makes a good case for a backup generator. In situations where an unscheduled outage could result in lost production, damaged equipment or even dead animals, consumers such as manufacturing firms, data centers, retail outlets and large livestock operations install distributed generation to protect their livelihood.

“Distributed generation can have its benefits, and in a few cases it can save consumers money,” Morrison continues. “But the number-one priority when considering it is safety. For this reason, step one of the process involves contacting your electric co-op — they’re the experts, after all, and can work with you in finding the best option to fit your needs.”

For homeowners and farmers, distributed generation options include generators that run on diesel fuel or natural gas as well as “backyard” renewable energy systems such as anaerobic digesters (which capture the combustible methane gas produced by animal waste), small wind turbines, solar panels or even small-scale hydropower facilities.

For commercial and industrial co-op members, on-site power serves as a supplemental power supply and also provides co-ops with an option when electricity is in short supply.

“When electricity use spikes on a hot, humid summer afternoon, a commercial or industrial consumer, after receiving notification from the co-op, can switch to generator power,” explains John Holt, senior principal for generation & fuel at NRECA. “This frees up more electricity system-wide, and the consumer generally receives a special electric rate in return. It may not always be the least expensive source of power, but distributed generation does have its perks.”

Scott Gates currently serves as editor for Carolina Country, the publication for members of North Carolina’s electric cooperatives.