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Green Power In The Bluegrass

The term “green power” covers a lot of different ways to generate electricity from renewable resources. Here in Kentucky, where conventional coal-fired plants are the reliable workhorse of power supplies, the movement to find and use alternative methods to generate electricity has made steady, although slow, progress.

This month, we’ll take a look at how each region of the Bluegrass State is going “green” with electricity from renewable resources.

Your local electric cooperative is a distribution co-op—its job is to supply electricity to members through a network of power lines.

But where does that electricity come from?

Three generation and transmission suppliers operating in different parts of the state produce the electricity and send it to your local system. In the eastern half of the state, East Kentucky Power Cooperative provides electricity to 16 co-ops in 89 counties. In the west, Big Rivers Electric Cooperative supplies electricity to three co-ops in 22 counties. And the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a public power company, supplies electricity to five local co-ops in southwest Kentucky.

Local resources vary, so each one offers green power generated by a different method.

The power of eastern landfills
East Kentucky’s move to green power began several years ago when Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing in Erlanger called its local co-op, Owen Electric in northern Kentucky. Owen relayed Toyota’s interest in purchasing green power to East Kentucky. After careful investigation, East Kentucky chose a readily available local resource—gases at a landfill—as the simplest and quickest way to go “green.”

Such waste-to-energy systems offer several advantages. The decomposing garbage in a landfill produces a steady supply of methane gas, which can be burned to create steam in a boiler. That steam can move turbines to generate electricity around the clock. So it’s a very reliable alternative energy resource.

East Kentucky’s first landfill gas-to-electricity plant at Bavaria, which began operating in 2003, produces 3.2 megawatts of electricity. It was soon followed by similar plants at Laurel Ridge (4.8 MW), Green Valley (2.4 MW), Pearl Hollow (2.4MW), and Pendleton (3.2 MW). Although the output is small at each plant, together they supply about 16 megawatts of green electricity. That’s enough electricity to supply about 8,500 homes.

Meredith Boyd, marketing representative at East Kentucky, says, “Since we began this program, the equipment to generate this kind of green power has become more efficient. Our sixth landfill gas-to-energy plant planned at the Maysville-Mason County landfill will produce an additional 3.2 megawatts. We hope to break ground this spring and bring it into our system by late fall 2008.”

East Kentucky offers this green energy to its distribution co-ops under the name Enviro­Watts. Interested individuals can sign up to buy blocks of 100 kilowatt-hours of this green power each month from their local distribution co-op.

Boyd says, “So far, Toyota is our largest purchaser through Owen Electric. Altogether we are selling 4,000 blocks of EnviroWatts to local co-ops each month, with about half of that going to businesses and the other half to residential customers.”

Reusing wood in the west
Big Rivers Electric Co-op supplies green power to its three local distribution co-ops under the name Enviro­Watts, too. But the renewable source is quite different.

In Hawesville, in Hancock County, a large paper mill, now owned by the Canadian company Domtar, figured out a way a few years ago to use their own waste material, mostly wood chips and bark, in a renewable energy system. Engineers call it a biomass combustion process because it uses a natural material, the bits of trees not needed to make paper. The leftovers are burned to make steam that was, at first, just used as a part of their own manufacturing process at the site. Then the plant figured out a way to add a generator to its system to use that steam to produce electricity. When a manufacturing company uses one material to do two things, such as provide heat for a process and create power, it’s known as a form of cogeneration.

Domtar’s system produces about 51 megawatts of electricity. Although most of that is used to power its own equipment on-site, Big Rivers has contracted with Domtar to buy the surplus for its version of the EnviroWatts program.

Russ Pogue, manager of Mar­keting and Member Relations at Big Rivers, says, “What we like about this system is that Domtar’s material would have gone to a landfill to decompose, but instead now it’s being used to generate electricity. Finding resources and developing them into renewable power is always a positive thing.”

Just intro­duced to member co-ops in late 2007, this version of EnviroWatts is being actively promoted by Meade County RECC through a variety of media under the headline “Earth Friendly Energy Alternatives.” This green power is sold in blocks of 100 kilowatt-hours a month.

Wind and solar from Tennessee
In Kentucky’s southwestern counties, where five electric co-ops get their power from TVA, interest in renewable power choices is not yet widespread.

Several years ago, TVA set up a system called Green Power Switch.

On the generating side, the program provides technical support and financial incentives to small-scale power generators that use wind or solar resources. In TVA’s multi-state system, an individual or business that installs a wind turbine or some form of solar generating system can connect that source to the regular grid and sell its surplus power to TVA. TVA hopes that giving these small producers a guaranteed market for their green power will encourage more people to install these kinds of systems.

However, Ken­tucky’s wind resources are not favorable for this kind of energy production, and solar power is also not very efficient or cost-effective within our state. Safety concerns about connecting such tiny and variable generating plants to the regular grid also need practical solutions. So for now, most of TVA’s renewable energy will likely continue to come from out of state.

Eighteen wind turbines grouped together operate on Buffalo Mountain in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. They produce 29 megawatts of power. Another five wind turbines scattered over a large geographic area produce just 0.034 megawatts.

So far, 16 widely disbursed solar collectors outside Kentucky produce only 0.3 megawatts of electricity. An additional 34 solar sites from generation partners have a daytime capacity of only 0.171 megawatts.

On the consumer side, TVA offers electricity users the opportunity to buy electricity from these wind or solar producers through the other part of the Green Power Switch program. Co-op members can buy green power in 150 kilowatt-hour blocks if their local distribution co-op participates in the program.

Brent Gilkey, manager of Member Services for Pennyrile Electric in Hopkinsville, says, “We began offering our members the Green Power Switch option two years ago in January 2006. Since then we’ve had 56 residential customers and one business sign up.”

A greener future
Big Rivers’ Pogue says, “The feasibility for renewables has improved. Now it’s a matter of technology and time.”

But public attitudes are also an important factor. East Kentucky’s Boyd says, “The EnviroWatts program is strictly voluntary, and it’s hard to ask people to pay more for their electricity than they’re used to paying. But when I talk about the program at annual meetings, people come up to me afterward and say, ‘I can do this for less than the price of a hamburger!’ People are a lot more open-minded about the idea of green power now.”

Next month: Improving coal power plants

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