Martin Thielke is prepared to keep the power on at his western Minnesota farm, even when fierce summer winds blow down poles and winter ice storms spark outages.
The corn and soybean farmer has invested in a propane-fueled whole-home generator to ensure he won’t lose power when he needs it most. His co-op, Agralite Electric Cooperative, sells and installs home generators and uses local vendors to maintain and repair them.
“The generator is a peace-of-mind thing when you’re living out in the boonies,” says Thielke, whose nearest grocery store is 22 miles away. “When we have these terrible whiteouts in the winter, nobody can get to you for days.”
While backstopping his own power supply, Thielke is also helping the co-op save money on its peak demand costs.
A few times a month, Agralite will transfer the load of Thielke and other participating members to their home generators for two to four hours with an automatic switch.
“We’re essentially simulating an outage,” says Jonathan Messner, Agralite’s member services manager. The events benefit members with generators by testing whether the units work properly. Agralite monitors the generators and sends out service technicians when they notice a problem that needs to be fixed.
Participants also save an average of $500 a year—and sometimes as much as $1,200—on their electric bills by disconnecting from the co-op’s system during the load-control events, Messner says. The price of a 20-kilowatt generator, including installation, is about $10,000, so the savings help offset the cost.
At the same time, Agralite is saving money for all of its 3,665 members by lowering peak demand each month. The amount that the distribution co-op must pay its power suppliers is based on peak demand, so reducing use by consumer-members during the busiest hours of the day lowers the co-op’s costs.
“Every kilowatt that we can shed during that peak demand period is a direct savings for us and our members,” Messner says.
The home generator program saves the co-op about $80 a month per unit, Messner says. With 150 units owned by members, that’s a savings of about $144,000 a year for Agralite.
As home generators have become more and more popular with consumers, an increasing number of co-ops have begun selling them. But using them for load control is rare, Messner says.
Agralite sees it as an opportunity to reduce peak demand as the grid moves toward clean but intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar.
“As we move toward renewables, we’re going to see more and more urgency to shift those loads during peak times,” Messner says. “The more we can shift the load, the bigger benefit to everyone. I feel like we’re getting ahead of the curve.”
Messner is one of the co-op members who has a home generator, and he has seen the transfer from the grid to the generator work well in bad weather.
“I watched a storm move across our system, with outages just rolling through,” he says. “The lights never even blinked. My life continued on without a hitch. We stayed on our generator for three days until our linemen were able to restore power.”
Thielke says the power also stays on seamlessly when the co-op performs its load control events, which is a good thing “because they always seem to do it at supper time.”
Messner advises other co-ops that are interested in replicating Agralite’s program to start small.
“Don’t be afraid to rely on contractors to help you out and take portions of the work,” he says. “We’ve utilized six different contractors doing the installation and maintenance. We have trusted vendors, and we rely on them. It spreads out the workload and makes it much more manageable.”
Messner says the program has caught on among members of the Benson-based co-op largely through word of mouth.
“I was the first one around here to get a generator, and now I’ve got 10 neighbors that have them,” Thielke says. “A windstorm came through here last summer, and a lot of people were knocked off power for 10 days. After that, people want to protect themselves against something major happening.”
And a smaller electric bill also helps, he says. Before he enrolled in the home generator program, his monthly electric bill often ran as high as $200. Now, it’s seldom over $130.
“I’m pretty satisfied with it,” Thielke says. “And it helps out the co-op. They don’t have to buy peak juice. It works out well for everybody.”