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Emerging Loads Look to Western Iowa

The world is witnessing a transformative shift in the energy generation landscape. Residential, commercial, and manufacturing consumers are increasingly interested in an electric generation mix that includes more renewables like wind and solar. In the United States, legislation and regulations are pushing the American economy toward a future that is working to reduce carbon emissions. Electric utilities are grappling with these impacts while also considering the reliability and affordability of electric service to users.


Photo of a light bulb being held in a man's hand.
A new challenge in western Iowa is to serve larger emerging electric loads without compromising reliability and affordability of power supply.

At the same time, a new challenge to serve larger emerging electric loads is playing a pivotal role in reshaping our energy consumption patterns. While these emerging loads have been popping up nationwide, their presence in the Midwest is beginning to be felt. Within western Iowa, NIPCO member cooperatives are seeing increased interest from potential customers representing emerging loads, including cryptocurrency data mining, dairy digesters, and green ammonia production facilities. These seemingly unrelated sectors are converging to leverage the benefits of electric power (and competitive rates) in unique and sustainable ways while tapping large chunks of megawatts (MW).


NIPCO's highest recorded peak, set on December 22, 2022, reached 269.36 MW. Discussions with potential projects in these sectors flirt with energy consumption levels ranging from a few megawatts to upwards of 10-20 MW or more. It is easy to see how securing just a handful of these new, emerging loads could significantly impact NIPCO's purchased power and other costs associated with expanding its infrastructure to serve them.


NIPCO is working closely with its member cooperatives, serving as a resource for these new load prospects to answer questions regarding infrastructure needs, generation mix, and rate design. Additionally, discussions among NIPCO Member Managers, the Board of Directors, and NIPCO staff address serving these new types of loads. Basin Electric Power Cooperative, NIPCO's primary power supplier, is working to finalize a new High-Density Computing Rate and/or a Large Load Rate which would allow electric cooperatives like NIPCO and its members to serve these high-volume loads in a way that allows for load growth while maintaining reliability of power and cost-effectiveness of rates.


This article will look at a few types of load inquiries members are seeing throughout western Iowa and will provide a little more detail about each type.


Data Mining: The Digital Energy Quest

Photo of two long, thin building structures in an industrial park.
This data center is located south of Le Mars, Iowa, and will be served by North West REC once operational in the next 30-60 days.

Data mining is the process by which cryptocurrency is created, and transactions are added to the blockchain (a type of digital ledger that assigns a unique code to improve the security of digital currency transactions). It relies heavily on computational power, and miners compete to solve complex mathematical puzzles requiring significant energy input. Bitcoin, the pioneer of cryptocurrencies, has been making headlines for its dramatic (and, often unpredictable) rise and fall in value and energy consumption.


The environmental concerns associated with cryptocurrency data mining arise because it often relies on fossil fuels, particularly coal, for electricity generation. However, there is a growing trend toward more sustainable data mining practices. Some miners locate their operations in regions with abundant renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric or solar power. NIPCO's generation mix includes nearly 23% hydroelectric and 19% wind, making locating a data center in western Iowa an attractive prospect.


Data mining project requests range in load size. However, the projects that are looking to site in western Iowa average 5-10 MW.


Dairy Digesters: Greening the Agricultural Industry

The agriculture sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through methane released by livestock, particularly cows. However, emerging electric loads are offering a promising solution: dairy digesters. These systems capture methane emissions from manure and convert them into electricity.


Photo of a man pointing to a large dairy digester system.
Harvey Van Ess points to a digester being built on his commercial dairy in Sanborn, Iowa.

Dairy digesters feed organic waste into anaerobic digesters, where bacteria break down the waste and produce methane gas. Traditionally, this methane was released into the atmosphere, but now it can be harnessed for electricity generation. The generated electricity can be used on the farm, sold to the grid, or stored for later use.

This technology not only reduces methane emissions but also provides a source of renewable energy. Farmers who implement dairy digesters contribute to environmental sustainability and benefit from reduced energy costs and/or potential revenue from selling excess electricity.


With several large dairies located on member lines within the NIPCO service footprint, NIPCO Class A members are fielding more questions from operators about how digester technology can provide added value and sustainability to their operations. Digesters can consume upwards of 1.5-2 MW per system and can be interruptible during peak times of use.

 

Green Ammonia: Western Iowa Landscape Offers Fields of Opportunity

Illustration of a molecule close-up.
Ammonia is produced by combining hydrogen and nitrogen under intense heat and pressure.

An innovative technology garnering increasing attention for its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while producing zero-carbon fertilizers and a cleaner alternative fuel source is a product known as green ammonia.


Since the early 1900s, commercial production of ammonia involves combining hydrogen extracted from natural gas or methane and nitrogen under intense heat and pressure utilizing the Haber-Bosch process. This product is known as "brown ammonia" because of its use of fossil fuels as the hydrogen and heat source.


Conversely, "green ammonia" is yielded when its production relies on hydrogen inputs produced using renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The process and inputs are produced through a process that is 100% renewable and carbon-free. Thus, green ammonia holds promise for producing sustainable fuels and fertilizers, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the transportation and agriculture sectors.


The technology to produce green ammonia continues to evolve and remains complex and costly. However, manufacturers of green ammonia have confidence that the product benefits and long-term value outweigh its challenges. Developers siting potential locations for green ammonia production have approached some Class A Members of NIPCO, thanks to the reliability and competitiveness of its power supply and adequate electric infrastructure. Green ammonia production facilities can range in load capacities from 10-12MW for one production system, and some developers are considering locations for up to two systems. This load is a good candidate for being interruptible, meaning production can be scaled back when energy demand is high.


In the global pursuit of products and processes that promote sustainability, and as international leaders seek to implement policies and incentives favoring such technologies, developers seek avenues for renewable energy and product innovation.


Challenges and Considerations

While these emerging electric loads offer promising solutions to environmental and energy challenges, they also impact increased sales and load growth to NIPCO. These loads also present unique challenges and considerations to electric cooperative systems like NIPCO. Discussions among NIPCO and its membership have included:

  1. Reliability and Affordability: The sustainability of these emerging electric loads depends heavily on the source of electricity and purchased power costs. Available generating capacity from NIPCO's power providers Basin Electric Power Cooperative and WAPA is limited, forcing them to tap the energy markets to access additional electricity. Market prices for power can be volatile, depending upon seasonal and situational conditions.

  2. Infrastructure: Infrastructure development to support these emerging loads can be costly and complex. Investments in new technologies, demand response programs, and grid upgrades may be required to serve the increased demand of electric service by these loads.

  3. Regulatory Hurdles: Regulatory frameworks may need to adapt to accommodate these new forms of energy consumption. Governments and regulatory bodies must balance fostering innovation and ensuring responsible usage. Additionally, incentives, subsidies, and market mechanisms may be needed to encourage their widespread adoption. Without these incentives, some projects could be abandoned, leaving stranded infrastructure in which member cooperatives must absorb investments and pass on to the end-users.

  4. Risk: As a generation and transmission power cooperative, we are a community-focused organization that works to efficiently deliver competitive, reliable, and safe energy that benefits the communities in western Iowa. Ensuring that emerging load prospects may be adequately served while protecting our members remains our top priority. Consideration of adopting a policy that balances load growth while protecting NIPCO's power supply requires transparency and thoughtful discussion between NIPCO and our Class A Members. NIPCO is grateful for the support our members have offered and received while navigating the risks associated with the rise of these new types of loads.

 

Emerging electric loads are reshaping how we produce, deliver, and consume energy. As a generation and transmission electric cooperative, we are responsible for ensuring that NIPCO can respond and sustain load growth that doesn't compromise our ability to deliver on our mission to serve our member electric cooperatives and the communities they serve reliably and affordably. NIPCO continues to advocate for developing policies that serve a future where our energy needs are met in economically viable and environmentally responsible ways.

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