Friday, September 18, 2009

Rural electric co-ops starting to show signs of a shift toward alternative energy

Rural electric co-ops, which supply power to 42 million Americans in 47 states, have long lagged behind in the shift toward alternative energy, but some are demonstrating that may be changing. In the past year some have invested in massive solar and wind projects while others have introduced small-scale innovations to educate their rural customers, Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal reports. Co-ops still remain reliant on old-style coal-fired power plants, but Bob Driver, an energy consultant for environmental group Western Resource Advocates tells Simon: "These are all good developments, they are starting to think differently than they were even two or three years ago."

In Brighton, Colo., residents are participating in the country's first co-operative solar farm run by local co-op United Power. "For $1,050, an investor gets a 25-year lease on a photovoltaic panel set up on United Power's land," Simon writes. "The co-op takes care of installation, insurance and maintenance." Investors can visit their panels and check energy output online; each month they get a credit on their bill for that amount. A single panel generates a $3-$4 a month credit, meaning it might takes 17-25 years to recoup the investment. (Journal photo by Carmel Zucker)

Rural co-ops don't qualify for alternative energy tax credits because of their non-profit status, but federal loans for coal-fired plants have been abundant, Simon reports. "Co-ops also tend to be run by conservative members who aren't eager to take on the burden of innovation in the name of fighting global warming," she writes. The stimulus plan set aside $2.4 billion to help rural co-ops invest in clean-energy projects, helping spur the shift. Among the examples: Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association Inc., which serves Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming, is developing the largest solar plant in the country in New Mexico and a wind farm in Eastern Colorado, and the Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc. has pledged a third of its power in North Dakota and Minnesota will come from wind by the end of next year. (Read more)

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