Powering a Greener New World!

Posted on Apr 10 2006 in Features

Co-op mascot Willie Wiredhand may have donned the guise of an electrifying superhero this month to emphasize the global energy predicament we find ourselves in, but it won’t really take a superhuman effort to break the bonds of our dependence on foreign fossil fuels. It’s just going to take determination, innovation and conservation. Together, Indiana’s electric co-ops and consumers are doing our part. Here are just some of the programs and projects powering a greener planet that will also help America become more energy independent, too.

In the early 1970s, animated ditties began airing between cartoons on Saturday morning TV. Called Schoolhouse Rock, the catchy tunes taught kids the function of conjunctions, multiplication, science and more. In one about electricity, the voice-over whimsically mused, “Now, if we only had a superhero who could stand here and turn the generator real fast, then we wouldn’t need to burn so much fuel to make electricity … electricity.”

Some 30-years later, we still could use that superhero to power us up. But, that’s not going to happen. The nation must still rely mostly on coal, nuclear and natural gas for its electricity.

Just as we did in the 1970s, the United States is facing an energy crisis. This one, though, runs deeper than oil embargoes.

New competition for the world’s limited oil and natural gas supplies is increasing global demand like never before. Reserves are dwindling. These and other factors are forcing energy prices to skyrocket here at home. It’s affecting not just the fuel for our cars and homes, but it’s driving up electricity costs, too. A new world is emerging. The energy decisions our nation makes today will have huge implications into the next century.

Most of the natural gas and oil Americans use comes from foreign sources. Much of our oil is from the Middle East. Instability there is forcing the United States to once again focus on energy independence. “Nothing,” said Sheldon C. Petersen, the CEO of the nation’s electric cooperatives’ financing co-op, “… is more important to our national security than achieving this goal.”

In a speech before the nation’s co-op leaders in February, Petersen added, “Our entire relationship to oil needs to be re-thought in the light of the geopolitical realities we face.” He said, “We need a ‘total energy makeover’ that includes coal and nuclear, as well as a higher percentage of renewables in the mix.”

Earth Day this month focuses on protecting our planet. This year it’s more important than ever for Indiana’s electric co-ops to point out the many things we all can do to help our planet environmentally that also help our nation break its dependence on foreign energy sources. These things include creating renewable energy sources, using coal more cleanly and educating consumers about energy efficiency and conservation.

Watts from waste

Garbage: we make it; bag it; curb it; and then watch it get hauled away by the garbage truck on trash day. Now, some of it is coming back to us — in the form of cleaner electricity.

Seven electric generating stations are being powered by the waste gas at six landfills around northern and central Indiana. The plants are owned by Wabash Valley Power Association, the Indianapolis-based cooperative power supplier to 22 electric co-ops in the northern half of Indiana and five in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

In a partnership with Waste Management of Indiana, which operates the landfills, the plants create enough electricity for over 10,500 homes and businesses. The power is distributed by participating REMCs/RECs to consumers through an innovative program called “EnviroWatts.”

Developed by Wabash Valley six years ago, EnviroWatts is a brand of electricity generated through alternative, renewable sources like biomass. It is offered to consumers of participating co-ops throughout Indiana and to co-op consumers in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

The newest landfill facility, EnviroWatts Liberty near Buffalo in northern White County, was dedicated in October 2005.

“Wabash Valley is taking a waste product that nobody wants and turning it into something for which there is a growing demand,” said Jack Landrum, CEO of White County REMC which provides power to the landfill. “The more power REMCs like ours can obtain through biomass sources like landfill generation, the less we’ll need to generate with nonrenewable fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.”

Landfill gas is created when organically-rich garbage placed in sanitary landfills decays. Over half of this gas is methane. Typically, the gas is collected in wells and burned off as giant flares. Now, at these six EnviroWatts landfills, it’s piped to the on-site electric plants. Each plant is powered by four Indiana-built Caterpillar engine-generators. Using the clean-burning gas as fuel, these engines each turn out about 800 kilowatts.

Other EnviroWatts plants are in Logansport, Wyatt, Michigan City, Portland and Danville. At Danville, two plants work side-by-side. Two more plants are planned at Michigan City and Wyatt.

In general, “green energy” costs more to produce than the low-cost coal-generated electricity Indiana relies most on. Consumers who sign up for EnviroWatts pay a penny per kilowatt-hour more. This premium generally adds less than $5 a month to the consumer’s electric bill. EnviroWatts consumers know, though, their co-op is purchasing environmentally-friendlier energy to meet their needs and that they’re supporting future growth of alternative energy sources.

“I love the EnviroWatts program,” said Ken Ritchey, general manager at Tipmont REMC. “Everybody agrees we need to move to alternative sources of energy, and our members generally support that kind of thing.”

He’s not kidding. Over a thousand consumers have signed up for EnviroWatts across the Wabash Valley systems. Over 80 percent of them are Tipmont REMC consumers. The co-op provides electricity to 24,000 consumers in parts of eight counties in the Lafayette/Crawfordsville area.

Tipmont puts EnviroWatts’ penny premium into a special environmental fund. Much like the Operation Round Up program many co-ops have, a separate board oversees Tipmont’s EnviroWatts fund to makes grants that benefit the environment in the communities Tipmont serves. To date, some $40,000 has been granted to garden clubs, youth and civic groups and others to plant trees and native grasses, clean up the Wabash River banks, create environmental education materials and much more.

In Jay County, where a new EnviroWatts plant was added outside Portland last year, schools have already been teaching the benefits of renewables to students. Cindy Denney, director of marketing and customer services at Jay County REMC, sees it when she and co-workers take the co-op’s educational program into their local schools. She said they focus on renewable resources. “It’s amazing how many kids are already aware of what the renewables are all about.”

The landfill plant, Denney said, generated even more local interest in the biomass fuels. Tours of the facility are offered. “Most people were glad they were using the methane for electricity rather than just burning it up,” she said.

“Waste Management’s landfills are located in the same rural areas of Indiana where our member cooperatives serve homes and businesses,” said Keith Thompson, Wabash Valley’s vice president of power production. “This partnership is a win-win proposition.

“It’s economically-priced power,” Thompson said, “and it’s just the right thing to do.”

Watts from cleaner coal

While alternative energy sources like landfill gas make good use of a waste byproduct, all the new renewable sources combined only generate a tiny fraction of the electricity that America uses today. Only after you toss in everything else — nuclear, natural gas, oil and hydro — do you then equal the power of coal.

Coal, America’s most plentiful energy resource, accounts for half of the electricity Americans use. In Indiana, coal provides over 95 percent of our electricity. No serious discussion about our nation’s goal of energy independence begins without coal in the mix.

Electric co-ops run some of the cleanest coal-fired plants in the nation. Hoosier Energy REC, cooperative power supplier to 17 co-ops in the southern half of the state, operates two coal-fired stations. The plants are equipped with state-of-the-art technology to meet or exceed the minimum clean air requirements for emissions.

New technologies are in the works to make coal even cleaner and more efficient. One cutting-edge technology is already being used right here in Indiana producing electricity for some 150,000 co-op consumers.

Early last year, Wabash Valley became co-owner of a “gasification” plant in West Terre Haute. The plant, sgSolutions, is one of only two in the nation that chemically transforms coal or petroleum coke into synthetic natural gas. The gas is then burned to generate electricity.

The emissions from the high-tech plant are cleaner than a conventional coal plant because the gasification process removes pollutants from the fuel source before the gas is burned. Conventional coal plants capture pollutants from the combustion gases after the coal’s been fired.

Built in the 1990s, the plant was originally part of a demonstration project through the Department of Energy’s Clean Coal program. The technology exists to remove even the carbon dioxide from the plant’s emissions.

“It’s definitely the future,” said Thompson at Wabash Valley.

Watts from wasting not

No fuel that requires combustion — coal, natural gas or oil — is going to be emissions free. That goes for power plants; the engines in our cars; natural gas furnaces or gas water heaters; and wood-stoves, too. That’s where we all can come together to make a difference.

We are already using energy efficiency and conservation techniques to meet our growing electric demand, Kateri Callahan told electric cooperative leaders in a forum at their national meeting in February. Callahan is the executive director of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based group promoting energy efficiency worldwide. She estimates the United States would be using 40 percent more electricity than it does today if energy-saving measures had not been put in place the past 30 years.

“The good news is,” she said, “we ain’t done yet! The energy we waste today is our greatest energy resource for tomorrow.”

While much of our nation’s energy future will rely on promising technologies still being developed, including things like hydrogen fuel cells, conservation and energy efficiency are things we can do today. (See the sidebar at right.) When we conserve, we save money on our energy bills; we save our resources; our nation doesn’t rely as much on foreign fuel; and the Earth’s environment is less affected.

“God gave man a planet that is beautiful and can supply all of our needs,” energy-efficiency expert Doug Rye told Hoosiers at a co-op-sponsored seminar last year. “We have a responsibility to take care of this gift called Earth.… We can provide our energy needs if we simply conserve and change our wasteful ways.”

Bringing in the nationally-known Rye to speak is one way co-ops promote conservation. They also turn to experts within their own ranks. Bob Geswein, an energy efficiency specialist from Harrison REMC, conducts home energy efficiency seminars for consumers and builders at his own co-op in Corydon, and also travels the state for other groups. Through March, he had already conducted 22 this year.

“The message we’ve been preaching for a long time has become very fashionable,” Geswein said. “We will not have the luxury of consuming energy tomorrow at the same rate we have in the past. We won’t be able to afford it.”

His seminars focus on ways to improve the thermal boundaries of a home. This increases comfort and reduces the size of the system needed to heat and cool the home. Reducing the size of the heating/cooling system reduces pollution, too. Geswein noted a 5,100-square-foot home built to the top level of the Department of Energy’s “Energy Star” program will produce almost 34,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year less than an equally-sized home built to minimum required building code standards.

Other co-op conservation programs include:

  • Touchstone Energy homes — participating co-ops statewide offer energy-efficient home programs to consumers. The programs outline various construction requirements to ensure new or existing homes meet or exceed efficiency standards used by Energy Star.
  • Demand-side management — a Wabash Valley conservation program that enables consumers to actively participate in not using electricity when electric demand is at its highest. This lessens the need to build new power plants.
  • The Environmental Education Center — an environmental and energy education program and facility at Hoosier Energy’s Merom generating station. Hoosier Energy also offers a free Web-based lending library to educators.
  • Soybean power — several Indiana co-ops use soy biodiesel, a cleaner-burning blend of fuel, in their fleet of utility trucks; last summer Tipmont REMC began using soybean-based oil rather than petroleum oil in its overhead transformers atop utility poles along its power lines.
  • Energy advisors — co-ops around the state have energy advisors available to help consumers with home energy audits and advice.

What we can do…

By finding new energy sources, innovating ones we have and conserving, Americans have the power to drastically cut our demand for foreign fossil fuels within the next 25 years.

As Sheldon Petersen reminded co-op leaders: “We’re a can-do nation … and anything we’ve set our mind to, from conquering fascism … to putting a man on the moon … to lighting up rural America … we’ve managed to achieve.

“This new goal of energy independence shines the spotlight directly on rural America and its vast resources.… And our electric cooperatives will be part of the infrastructure that supports this initiative,” Petersen said.

It won’t take a superhero to make us energy independent, or the planet greener. But it will take all Americans working together.

SAVE THE DAY: Ways you can save energy, money, the American way and the world

  • Turn off everything not in use: lights, TVs, computers, etc.
  • When cooking, keep the lids on pots. Better yet, use a microwave oven instead.
  • About 15 percent of an average home energy bill goes to heating water. To save hot water, take five-minute showers instead of baths. Use cold water for laundry and save up to $63 a year — detergents formulated for cold water get clothes just as clean.
  • Lower the temperature on your water heater. It should be set at “warm,” so that a thermometer held under running water reads no more than 120 degrees.
  • When buying new products, look for the Energy Star® label, found on more than 40 different products such as TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners and more.
  • Incandescent light bulbs are outdated; 95 percent of the energy used goes to heating the bulb. Replace your five most used light bulbs with Energy Star compact fluorescent bulbs. These light bulbs use two-thirds less energy and last up to 10 times longer.
  • Stop the air leaks in your home by caulking around doors, windows and other gaps along the home’s foundation.
  • Replace your old gas furnace with a new high-efficient electric system. Electric heat pumps are three times more efficient than the best gas furnaces; geothermal systems are five times more efficient than gas.
  • Replace your old gas water heater with a new high-efficient electric one. The best gas water heaters are around 60 percent efficient. Super-insulated water heaters, like a Marathon, are almost 100 percent efficient and have a lifetime warranty.

For more tips, resources, and where to get free publications, visit The Alliance to Save Energy’s Web site at: www.ase.org.

Sources: Dept. of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Alliance to Save Energy and Electric Consumer