US electric co-ops look to diversify with more solar, geothermal and nuclear

Plans to develop six small modular reactors in Utah are controversial but there are also a number of clean energy projects springing up around the country

Several electric co-ops in the USA have announced plans for ambitious new generation projects as they look to diversify away from fossil fuels.

Not all projects represent a clean break with the fossil industry. In Colorado, United Power co-op has signed a letter of intent with geothermal developer Transitional Energy to develop a pilot project to develop geothermal resources from oil and gas operations in its service territory.

United Power provides electricity to multiple oil and gas operations in Colorado’s DJ Oil Basin, and the geothermal scheme will supply these operations with dispatchable baseload electric power. The programme may be used with both operational and abandoned wells to capture and convert what would otherwise be waste geothermal energy to electricity.

Many oil and gas operators use traditional electric service to power drilling rigs and other well pad equipment. United Power and Transitional Energy say they offer “a unique solution” that can power oil and gas operations using up to 100% geothermal energy, allowing them “to offset their energy purchases while reducing their greenhouse gas footprint”.

The project will tap into the geothermal potential of thousands of wellbores within the DJ Basin. “Reuse of existing wells and infrastructure is a capital-efficient way to use the heat beneath our feet,” the partnership says.

Related: Kaua’i Island Electric Cooperative’s journey to 100% renewable power

“United Power is excited to work on this innovative pilot project,” stated Dean Hubbuck, United Power’s chief energy resources officer. “Utilising clean, economical geothermal energy to provide local power that can be dispatched when needed is a critical component of our growing energy portfolio. Geothermal energy represents a huge untapped renewable resource that can reduce our reliance on power from other traditional sources.”

United Power is a member-owned, not-for-profit electric co-operative, serving homes, farms and businesses throughout Colorado’s northern front range. One of the fastest-growing electric cooperatives in the US, and in June 2021 it joined the rank of co-ops serving more than 100,000 meters.

It is a founding member of the NextGen Cooperative Alliance, “dedicated to expanding the power supply and procurement options and reforming the traditional generation and transmission business model”.

Related: US infrastructure bill could help co-ops offer broadband, clean energy and EV charging

Transitional Energy is a geothermal development company based in Denver. The company is majority women owned and Native-led, and boasts “deep expertise in subsurface engineering, facilities engineering and geology”.

Meanwhile, electric co-ops in Utah are continuing to explore the possibilities of using a new type of nuclear reactor – the Small Modular Reactor – being developed by Oregon company NuScale Power.

Doubt has been cast on the feasibility of these plans, with a report from the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) warning that the model – still awaiting full certification from federal regulators – is “too expensive, too risky and too uncertain”.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems co-op (UAMPS), which delivers energy services on a nonprofit basis to community-owned power systems, wants to build and operate six reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory as part of its carbon transition and climate strategy.

It has received £1.3bn in federal funding for the project, which it hopes to bring online in 2029, but last summer it halved its original plan for 12 reactors.

IEEFA warns: “The first-of-its-kind SMR is a serious financial threat to the member communities of the Utah Associated Municipal Power System that have signed up for a share of its power and to any other communities and utilities thinking about doing so. NuScale has optimistically targeted the cost of power from the new plant at $58 per megawatt-hour (MWh), although some estimates predict costs for the power from new SMRs could reach $200/MWh.

“Given that the costs of available renewable sources are falling rapidly and that the SMR wouldn’t generate electricity before 2029, the project should be abandoned.”

The institute is also concerned the project could suffer rising construction costs, construction delays and might underperform in terms of generating efficiency.

“There are cheaper zero-carbon energy options available now,” said Dennis Wamsted, an IEEFA energy analyst and co-author of the report. “NuScale’s SMR is not needed.”

LaVarr Webb, spokesperson for the Utah energy cooperative, told Federal News Network the report had omitted important facts, including the federal government’s strong support for the project, and the fact that NuScale modules will be built in a factory and not at a site that could be affected by weather delays.

“There was a lot of misinformation,” he added. “Our members are very supportive of the project and we will go forward as planned.”

While nuclear is controversial, electric co-ops are also continuing a drive towards clean renewables. These projects come as the energy sector as a whole looks to move away from fossil fuels. A report from Ernst & Young shows that the rise of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) model has led to a growing interest in sustainability in 2021.

This has caused problems for some electric co-ops which are tied into fossil contracts with hefty exit fees. Colarado’s La Plata Electric has been embroiled in a legal case with its supplier Tri-State, whose rules  state that members can only generate 5% of their own power, keeping them from developing renewables. 

In 2019, Tri-State’s 42 members to create a new type of contract to allow rural co-ops to get some of their power from other sources, and La Plata will now take advantage of this. It is working with Tri-State and the federal regulator to determine an exit fee from the contract, and going forward from this would only source half its energy from the supplier, taking the rest from renewable sources.

Related: US electric co-ops face ‘outrageous’ exit fees to leave Tri-State

Renewable energy can also bring environmental damage and a number of recent co-op projects have sought to mitigate these. Walton EMC Cooperative in Georgia has partnered with regenerative grazer Will Harris who is running sheep and chickens around several thousand acres of solar farms that provide energy to Facebook data centres.

MiEnergy Cooperative in Southern Minnesota has partnered with Featherstone Farms, a 25-year organic farm next door, and will have a 1 MW solar array with a wide diversity of fruits and vegetables. The project is part of a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab into co-location of agriculture and solar energy. The project developer, OneEnergy Renewables, has a track record of doing agriculturally innovative projects, including several solar projects with Organic Valley, the largest co-op dairy in the US.

And Connexus Energy in Central Minnesota has installed pollinator-friendly plantings throughout its solar arrays, with local beekeepers tending hives so the co-op provides honey – as well as electricity – to its members. Honey is also used by local breweries.

Minnesota state is home to the Center for Pollinators in Energy, which helped develop a standard for vegetation on solar sites in the state. More than a dozen states now use pollinator scorecards, but Texas is not one of them.

Rob Davis, of Connexus Energy, told the Independent: “Just like states look to standards, energy buyers can use those standards as well … Any of these big companies can say, ‘Hey, when we’re buying renewable energy, we want projects specifically that are done in a way that creates value for the local community, that use low-impact design, that avoid previously undisturbed lands like remnant prairies.’“

But renewable projects can hit obstacles. Plans for an 80mW solar farm in Colorado’s Delta County, which would have supplied power to electric co-op Delta-Montrose, has been vetoed by county planners, citing concerns over the potential loss of farm land – although the plan had included measures to irrigate the site and allowing sheep to graze the site.

Guzman Energy, the contractor which would have developed the site, said in a joint statement with Delta Montrose: “We are disappointed that the Delta County Board of County Commissioners has denied permitting for the Garnet Mesa solar project. When energy is developed locally, it boosts the area’s economy and further improves the resilience of the local power grid.”