Shifting Toward a Brighter Energy Future

“Beneficial electrification” may seem to hark back to electric cooperatives’ origins in the 1930s, when national, regional and local initiatives began to bring electricity to the 9 out of 10 rural homes and farms that had been literally in the dark. But today the phrase connotes something even more ambitious.

“It’s about building a brighter energy future,” says Diane Huis, senior vice president of innovation and business development for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, the state’s trade association and generation and transmission cooperative. “From reducing costs and promoting economic development to providing cleaner air and water, the shift from processes using fossil fuels to electricity at home, on the farm and in industry can lead to improved energy efficiency of the overall energy sector and improved quality of life.”

A broad range of solutions

For such a vital shift, there’s no single breakthrough that will lead to those benefits. Rather, beneficial electrification depends on combining a broad range of technological solutions that utilize existing infrastructure more efficiently and enable consumers and industries to fully leverage the advantages electricity has to offer.

Edge-of-grid technology such as smart meters and thermostats have made the electric grid more interconnected and flexible and provided better monitoring and control that allow electricity to be used in new ways. From electric vehicles on the road and more efficient irrigation and space heating on the farm, many of those innovations hold tremendous promise for North Carolina’s future, and the state’s co-ops are continuing to explore opportunities to make devices and processes cleaner, smarter and cheaper.

“Agribusiness is a large driver of North Carolina’s economy, and it’s especially prevalent in the rural parts of the state our cooperatives serve,” says Huis, who notes that agriculture has long depended on gasoline, diesel fuel and propane to power tractors and combines, heat barns and run irrigation systems.

Beneficial electrification depends on combining a broad range of technological solutions that utilize existing infrastructure more efficiently and enable consumers and industries to fully leverage the advantages electricity has to offer

Yet in irrigation, for example, diesel-powered motors waste energy, operating at only about half the efficiency of the new electric systems. New electric pumps with variable frequency drives allow energy use to be calibrated precisely to meet highly variable needs in delivering water to crops. Because such systems use only the power that’s needed, energy use – and costs – tend to be lower, further shifting the cost-benefit equation toward electric-powered options.

Rethinking the tractor

Electric tractors, too, could bring benefits to farmers in North Carolina and across the country. In December 2016, John Deere introduced the first battery-powered tractor, which runs on two independent electric motors, makes less noise than traditional tractors and has far fewer moving parts, which should mean lower maintenance costs. As improved battery capacity increases the current four hours in the fields between charges, these tractors may experience the same kind of growth that electric-powered cars have seen in recent years.

Other innovations are fueling a switch to electricity from propane or natural gas for heating barns for livestock. “Any technology that can reduce costs and decrease the farm’s environmental footprint is technology that our members and consumers are very interested in,” says Huis.

A long list of other technologies and devices – encompassing smart thermostats, batteries, microgrids and energy management systems – also utilize the evolving electric grid to provide benefits to co-op members and communities. The generation and transmission arm of North Carolina’s electric cooperatives has developed an agricultural microgrid in partnership with local cooperative South River EMC and Butler Farms located in rural North Carolina that utilizes alternative energy sources including biogas from swine waste, solar and battery storage to generate electricity that can power the farm and nearby homes.

“We look at how technology directly impacts our consumers and their communities,” Huis says. “Does it give them more control over their electricity costs and help improve their lives?”

“That’s the great thing about electrification and today’s flexible grid,” she adds. “Consumers, utilities and the environment all benefit from the brighter future that the evolution of electricity has to offer.”