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December 2012 Issue

December 2012
Feature 1

the Heat

Feature 2

the Wave


"Aggregation Consternation"

Wisconsin Favorites
Wisconsin Favorites
"Take a Trip to the
Toy Train Barn"



Feeling the Heat

Will New Efficiency Standard Harm…efficiency?

Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) wish list includes a new energy efficiency standard for water heaters. It will have a substantial effect on the kinds of equipment used in new construction and to replace old units. It will also trigger the gradual but certain elimination of some of the most successful energy conservation programs operating in the United States today.

Simple Tools Boost Efficiency

Energy efficiency is a no-brainer. Getting more work from each unit of energy consumed is like getting some of that work done for free. And because the laws of physics dictate that electricity be produced as it’s used (and vice-versa), every watt of electricity that isn’t used is a watt that isn’t generated. Well-run programs encouraging energy efficiency add up here and there to a power plant not needing to be built.

Electric cooperatives have led in energy efficiency, partly by finding loopholes in the laws of physics. One loophole you could drive a bucket truck through is the ability to convert electricity into other forms of energy that—unlike electricity—can easily be stored for later use.

A large-scale example is pumped-storage hydropower helping address wind energy’s reliability challenges: When the wind feels like blowing but there’s no immediate demand, the power can be used to pump water uphill into a reservoir. Later, when there’s need for electricity but the wind doesn’t blow, water can be released to spin turbines and generate power.

A small-scale example—at the individual consumer level—is the electric resistance water heater. Favored by cooperatives as a load-management tool since the early 1950s, the electric water heater can use generation at low demand times and store the power as hot water, so generators avoid the added burden of supplying power to heat water when other uses push peak demand.

Other water-heating technologies can be super-efficient but also tend to be much more expensive for the consumer and to lack an electric water heater’s capability—in tandem with many similar units—to shift times of energy consumption and level off peak demand. Standards advocated by the DOE favor those other technologies and would gradually make electric water heaters a thing of the past, along with their affordable conservation and load-management benefits.  

Procedural Bypass

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) has been grappling with the DOE over a standard set to take effect in April 2015 and requiring any water heater with greater than 55-gallon capacity to operate at 200-percent efficiency.  That efficiency level can be achieved only by comparatively expensive heat-pump water heaters.

On another front, the DOE recently proposed revising the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to similarly phase out electric resistance water heaters. The DOE accepted public comments on the proposal only for a two-week period in October, avoiding statute-law procedures for federal regulatory rulemaking by proposing the standard to a separate body outside the U.S. government.

The objections raised by NRECA aren’t against heat pump devices, but rather against the forced, gradual elimination of cooperatives’ use of water heaters to conserve energy.

According to NRECA, co-op load management programs—including brief interruptions of power to electric resistance water heaters—are able to cut peak demand by about 6 percent. Last year, NRECA says, that reduced co-op electrical loads by about 2,200 megawatts, more than double the entire output of Wisconsin’s Point Beach nuclear plant.

A Skeptical Senator

This fall, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D–OR) went to bat for co-op conservation programs, asking the DOE to change its IECC proposal. Electric resistance water heaters “can help achieve multiple energy objectives, something that would be undermined” by the code change, Wyden wrote.

Advocating efforts to hold down consumer costs by minimizing increases in peak demand, Wyden cited a 2010 Electric Power Research Institute paper that said 10 percent of electric generation assets and as much as one-fourth of distribution assets are used less than 400 hours a year and “represent hundreds of billions of dollars of additional costs to the electric utility industry and its customers in order to ensure peak demand is met.”

Resistance water heaters, he said, can be used as peak-shaving energy-storage devices and as “an important, low-cost tool for the integration of intermittent renewable resources like wind and solar.”

“I hope you would agree that new building codes should not preclude the use of cost-effective storage technologies that facilitate the integration of renewable power and help reduce system costs,” Wyden told the DOE.

Local Leadership

Closer to home, La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative estimates its load management efforts cut demand during peak hours by 70 megawatts in summer and 160 megawatts in winter. Methods include interrupting service to water heaters or air conditioners for short periods.

The local co-ops that own Dairyland advertise load management opportunities to their members, and residential and business customers can receive incentives for participation—in addition to the benefit of saving energy.

That’s important. With continuing development in rural communities, Dairyland estimates energy usage growing 1 to 2 percent annually. To control peak loads, conserve power, and postpone new infrastructure needs, they’ll need every tool they have.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network  




Catching the Wave

Feds Okay Plan to Harness Wave Power


Federal regulators have given the go-ahead to a first-of-its-kind wave power station that is designed to generate renewable energy off the Oregon coast. In an Aug. 13 order, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a license for New Jersey-based Ocean Power Technologies to build a 10-buoy system near Reedsport, Oregon.

The buoys, anchored to the ocean floor at depths of 204 to 225 feet, would convert the movement of waves into electrical energy. Once onshore, the energy would move through a Douglas Electric Cooperative distribution line to a Bonneville Power Administration substation. Expected to have an installed capacity of about 1.5 megawatts, the project received a 35-year license from FERC.

More Co-op Involvement

Ocean Power Technologies said it plans to start with one buoy not connected to the grid, monitor it for a season, then add the nine other buoys and begin commercial operations. PNGC Power, a generation and transmission cooperative headquartered in Portland, Oregon, provided partial funding for the non-connected buoy to support testing of this wave energy technology.

In June, Ocean Power Technologies said it had successfully tested elements of its utility-scale PowerBuoy system in anticipation of bringing the initial phase of the project online in October. However, inclement weather this fall has pushed deployment of the initial buoy to next spring.

The buoy itself is designed to perform well during severe weather once installed, but during transit there are concerns for towing stability in the harsh conditions now more frequent, according to the company. The completed device needs to be towed approximately 300 miles from the Portland area dry dock to its deployment site about 2.5 nautical miles west of Reedsport.

Commercial Potential

The project will cost about $3.5 million a year to run, and it should produce about 4,140 megawatt-hours,enough for 1,000 homes, according to the company.

Charles F. Dunleavy, Ocean Power CEO, called the license approval “an important milestone” for his firm and the developing wave energy industry. “The 35-year term of the license demonstrates the commercial potential of wave power, and this will support initiatives to secure financing for the project,” he said in a statement.

The FERC license cited groundwork that Ocean Power Technologies laid in 2010, when it inked an agreement with multiple agencies and interested parties to explain how it planned to handle environmental concerns.

“We appreciate the efforts of many who have assisted us during this licensing process, and who recognize its positive significance for the economy and environment of Oregon as well as its coastal communities,” Dunleavy said.—From published reports in Electric Co-op Today and Business Wire, photos by Ocean Power Technologies










by Perry Baird

At a Customers First! annual conference in Madison, Executive Director Matt Bromley updates members on its ongoing efforts to protect electricity consumers.


In the late 1990s we saw large utilities and energy companies (think Enron) campaigning to deregulate the electric utility industry and allow energy suppliers to compete with each other for customers. The companies’ interest was, of course, to cash in on the buying and selling of electric energy. Some consumer groups, hoping to get a break on their power costs, threw in with the trend, and the drive was powerful enough to persuade certain state legislatures to enact measures promoting such retail choice.

Wisconsin, fortunately, wasn’t among them. Our state’s long tradition of careful planning and regulatory oversight put us in a position where we had among the nation’s lowest rates already, and consumers here didn’t stand to gain by shopping around for bargain-basement prices offered by outside energy marketers.

In fact, skepticism about deregulation trends and so-called “retail wheeling” is what moved Wisconsin’s electric co-ops, municipal utilities, some investor-owned power companies, and an assortment of consumer, business, and environmental groups to form the Customers First! Coalition, a partnership whose bottom line—as the name suggests—is looking out for those end-users who pay the rates for electricity.

Unified Voice

It has been a unique assemblage, bringing together organizations that—on other occasions—might be found on opposing sides of a number of energy issues. But on this score, they all agreed; retail choice in Wisconsin’s electricity marketplace spelled bad news for Badger State customers. Customers First! continues its work to ensure that elected and agency officials—both here and in Washington, D.C.—back fair and insightful regulation in the energy industry.

Matt Bromley, executive director of Customers First!, noted recently that vigilance needs to continue, since it appears deregulation schemes are once again on the upswing. He cited referenda votes that took place November 6 in Chicago and many other communities in Illinois (a state that endorsed deregulation) where residents approved allowing their respective municipalities to purchase electricity.

Short Term, Long Term Differences

“The hope for consumers is that by banding together they should, collectively, have greater purchasing power and more leverage in negotiating lower prices with competitive energy suppliers than if they were to seek a deal on their own,” Bromley wrote, explaining, “The movement toward municipal electricity aggregation in Illinois is the latest attempt to deliver the elusive benefits (i.e. lower rates) of electricity deregulation to residential and small business customers.”

While aggregation has been delivering short-term savings to residents of some Illinois communities, savings over the long term are not guaranteed, according to Bromley. He cited predictions that the historic low prices for electricity in the wholesale markets, which have allowed aggregation communities to save money on their power supply, won’t last long. “As the economy recovers and demand for power squeezes supply, aggregation communities and customers who rely on the open competitive market for their electricity will be exposed to the price pressures and instability of that market,” Bromley said.

We think consumers value price stability, and providers that have long-term power generation planning and investments—as in Wisconsin—are better positioned to protect customers from rising prices over the long term. We’ll stay vigilant.







Who knew Santa’s toyland was housed in a bright orange barn? Okay, so maybe it isn’t really Santa’s toyland, but the can’t-miss Toy Train Barn in Argyle holds as much miniature magic as any mythical North Pole workshop could.

Created and lovingly tended by Buck and Jan Guthrie, the Toy Train Barn contains a collection of everchanging model train displays. Eight different layouts are looped through with trains of all sizes and styles, including some antique Depression-era train cars and newer American Flyers and Lionels. All of them wind through entire miniature communities filled with tiny people going about their business in little homes, stores, farms, parks, and playlands as the various trains chug past.

And it’s not just the trains that are chugging. Just about everything within these small-scale communities is animated—cars move along the streets, children ride by on bicycles, farm animals scurry about in barnyards, and high-rise buildings light up cityscapes. Tucked within each display are whimsicle scenes that spring to life at the push of a button. Look closely and you’ll notice a couple of men hard at work on a blocked-off section of the street, with one of the workers popping in and out of a manhole. In another corner real water streams from a fireman’s hose onto a burning house with fire glowing through its windows and smoke rising from its chimney. In yet another area, a real movie plays on the screen at a drive-in theater full of little cars, including one vehicle near the back that gently rocks up and down.

Everywhere you look, scenes like this abound: A man mows his lawn in a riding mower; a child runs in circles, flying a kite; a city band plays a patriotic tune at a train station; a service station attendant polishes a truck at a gas station. Look up and you’ll see helicopters and small aircraft flying overhead; look down and you’ll see a subway train stopping for passengers under a bustling city street.

There’s even plenty to see if you look behind. In fact, a large part of the Toy Train Barn’s charm is discovering what’s behind the scenes, setting everything into motion. The surprising secrets behind the magic are also what set the Toy Train Barn’s displays apart from other miniature train exhibits.

These scenes are powered not by standard toy train parts, but from motors you’d find in everyday items including microwaves, VCRs, toasters, electric can openers, chicken rotisseries, and other small household appliances. The miniature firefighting scene is powered by an old windshield wiper pump. The band at the station plays with the help of an old answering machine. The trains run on standard toy train tracks, but many of them switch tracks with the security magnets from Radio Shack.

This is what happens when a creative, inventive man with a love of trains realizes his lifelong dream of keeping his toy trains on display in a roadside museum. Buck Guthrie, a conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, got his first toy train set when he was 5, and he’s been playing with trains ever since. Buck not only kept collecting toy trains over the years, but he kept tinkering with them as well, finding ways to set up new displays with old materials. He and Jan ended up purchasing the Argyle farm where Buck grew up, and they set to work restoring the old barn that had fallen into disrepair. However, instead of filling the barn with cows, the couple filled it with Buck’s toy trains, opening the Toy Train Barn to the public in 2001.

In its decade-plus of existence, the Toy Train Barn has been featured on public television and been a destination for a number of auto and motorcycle clubs. Area school classes and community organizations visit regularly, and the guestbook is filled with names of people from as nearby as down the road and as far away as Tokyo. Plenty are repeat visitors; thanks to Buck’s nonstop imagination and love of tinkering, there’s always something new at the museum to see. And whatever it is, it’s sure to be magical.— Mary Erickson

The Toy Train Barn is located at W9141 Hwy. 81, Argyle. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; call ahead in inclement weather to check on accessibility. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children under 10. For more information, call (608) 966-1464, visit www.whrc-wi.org/trainbarn, or visit the Toy Train Barn on Facebook.


©2012 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News