More electric co-ops in US are sourcing renewable energy

‘Any time we can produce renewable energy at the local level, and our members consume that locally, we can save them a little bit of money’

More electric co-ops in the US are moving towards renewable energy sources, prompted by increased consumer concern over the environment and the prospect of lower operating costs.

A number of co-ops across the States have already started work switching to wind or solar generation, but the move has not been without problems. Several electric co-ops are tied up in deals with power generator Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association – which generates half its supply from coal – with some opting to buy their way out.

One of those, Kit Carson, is now partnering with Guzman Energy to construct a solar array on Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito Campus. 

In response, Tri-State itself has indicated an intention to move away from fossil generation, and has just retired its Nucla coal station in western Colorado three years ahead of schedule to help the state’s plan to improve air quality.

But this has not stopped the exodus, with two more co-ops in Colorado – Brighton-based United Power and Durango-based La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) now in dispute with the supplier.

The co-ops are required by contract to buy 95% of their electricity from Tri-State but want to move to lower cost renewables and battery storage. United’s new storage facility is the largest in the state, offering 18.2 megawatt-hours of interconnected capacity. The initiative has seen United placed tenth on the list of US battery storage utilities by the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

United says it has been waiting for several months for Tri-State to give figures for an exit charge, with United Power CEO Jon Parker saying: “By not allowing United Power to move forward in a timely manner to seek additional energy sources, Tri-State is effectively holding this co-operative and our members hostage,” said United Power CEO Jon Parker.

In response, Tri-State says it is considering changes to its wholesale power contracts to allow co-ops to buy more power elsewhere, and address the concerns of United Power.

Meanwhile, electric co-ops across the country are joining the trend for renewable sourcing.

This month, South Carolina, Central Electric Power Cooperative has announced plans to purchase 150 MW of solar power at two locations in Orangeburg County. The installations – among the largest in the state – will each produce 75 MW of electricity, enough to power a total of 30,000 average South Carolina homes.

And in North Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative is looking to source between 400 MW and 500 MW of solar generation alongside additional wind generation.

Recent months have seen similar initiatives elsewhere, some of which backed by legislative impetus at state level. In September, lawmakers in Texas gave electric co-ops the right to own energy storage facilities, easing the path to solar generation. The same month, New Mexico set a renewable energy standard for investor-owned utilities and rural electric co-ops of 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2040, with further targets to follow.

In Denver, Colorado, Solar United Neighbors has set up dozens of renewable co-ops and installed rooftop solar installations on homes in the Yampa Valley and Fort Collins areas.

In Vermont, Washington Electric Co-op is 100% renewable and is now offering members help with conserving energy and updating old fossil appliances with energy-efficient electric ones.

In Minnesota, Lake Region Electric Cooperative has begun sourcing power from the Juhl Energy, which has developed a new method of jointly wind and solar energy through a single system. The co-op’s CEO Tim Thompson told the Duluth New Tribune he expects his organisation to save about $150,000 annually through cheaper electricity.

“Any time we can produce renewable energy at the local level, and our members consume that locally, we can save them a little bit of money in the process,” he added. “That’s a perfect project for us.”

Electric co-ops in the US are also working to install charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. For instance, North Carolina Electric Cooperatives announced they will install 21 electric car charging stations in rural areas at a cost of $1m.