Dairyland eyes solar energy, economic development in rural areas

June 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

With the passage of the generation that experienced the electrification of rural America, La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative is looking for ways to remind younger members of the value of cooperative utilities and to prepare for the next game-changing technology.

That was the message delivered Wednesday to 246 delegates and about 350 others in attendance at the cooperative’s 72nd annual meeting in La Crosse.

In a speech modeled after the 1970s television show “Connections,” President Bill Berg traced a path of technological and social developments from a water-powered mill in 3rd century France to the printing press to automated punch cards and finally the modern computer chip.

“What once took hundreds of years can now happen in decades” — or faster, Berg said. “Perhaps the biggest threat could come from new technology.”

While photovoltaic solar generation can’t yet compete with fossil fuel sources on price and can’t be delivered on demand, Berg said the advances have been dramatic.

“You can view it as a threat or as something you need to be a part of.”

Renewable energy now makes up just more than 12 percent of Dairyland’s generation resources, though solar accounts for less than 0.1 percent. But there is a small solar generation project in the planning phase that Berg hopes will be constructed next year.

Serving about 600,000 people in western Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, Dairyland delivered some 5.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2012, reaching an all-time peak demand of 1,061 megawatts on July 6, when the temperature in La Crosse hit 103.

It was a year that included the removal of 38 metric tons of nuclear waste from the shuttered atomic power plant in Genoa. A $47 million project that took years to complete, it will save the co-op an estimated $4 million a year and enable the decommissioning of the plant, which stopped producing power in 1987.

Dairyland also began a major overhaul of its 161-kilovolt transmission line that serves as the “backbone” connecting coal-fired plants in Alma and Genoa, which Dairyland said was necessary to ensure reliability. In the first of three phases, crews have been replacing nearly 21 miles of towers between Genoa and La Crosse.

With total revenues of nearly $403 million, the utility posted net earnings of $20.2 million, about 10.9 percent better than 2011. Berg said that margin was largely a result of strategic planning to build equity and ensure the best and cheapest access to capital.

But there’s more to being a member-owned utility than dollars and kilowatts, said Brian Rude, vice president of external relations. It has to include economic development for rural communities.

“In an era of new technology we run the risk of becoming just another utility” with higher costs to deliver power to customers, he said. “We’re not just a utility. We’re an organization that empowers members … to improve the quality of their lives.”

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