Agricultural microgrids benefit farms, local communities and the electric grid in North Carolina

The foundation of North Carolina’s electric cooperatives are rooted in agriculture, as electric cooperatives were founded by farmers and agricultural workers and grew from their hard work and ingenuity.

Their history has been closely intertwined since, working together as the needs of agribusiness and rural communities evolve. One great example of that partnership is microgrids – and North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives have five, with two located at farms.

These relatively small, electric systems serve as a case study for how agriculture and electric utilities – two of North Carolina’s most important industries – can work together to promote sustainability and improve quality of life.

Butler Farms: A hog farm with a sustainability mindset

When microgrid construction began on the South River Electric Membership Corporation-served hog farm, the goal was to learn more about how a microgrid located on a member’s property could be incorporated into the electric cooperatives’ distribution system and benefit not only the farm but the surrounding communities and broader electric grid.

The microgrid integrated components owned by North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives with resources owned by the farm and incorporated alternative energy sources, including biogas, solar and battery storage.

Jim Musilek was part of the team that helped develop the site and said the farm was a natural fit for a project like this.

“There was an intersection of opportunity there,” said Musilek, vice president of innovation and business development for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “At Butler Farms, you had a farmer who was already utilizing renewable resources like solar and biogas, so when we approached him about a project like this, he was on board.”

The Butler Farms microgrid has enhanced the reliability of the electric system and farm operations by avoiding outages to grid power with its local energy resources. During outages, it can also operate in island mode to power Butler Farms and nearby homes.

“That project put us on the map,” said Musilek. “People have traveled from all over to come see that site and learn how to replicate it.”

One of the first-of-its-kind across North Carolina, this microgrid became a jumping-off point for future sites.

Rose Acre Farms: An egg distributor focused on business and community

Located in Hyde County and served by Tideland Electric Membership Corporation, the Rose Acre agricultural microgrid integrates solar energy and battery storage, supporting reliability for one of the largest egg distributors in the country.

The microgrid provides on-site renewable energy generation to support Rose Acre Farms’ corporate sustainability goals, which include energy-efficient lighting and efficient water and waste management programs. Solar production from this project is expected to offset about one-third of the total energy consumed by the farm.

While the microgrid is bolstering the farm’s capabilities, the system is also enhancing grid reliability for local communities and the broader cooperative network. The connected battery on the microgrid allows the energy produced by the solar arrays to be stored and then dispatched to the grid when needed, providing for greater reliability to the grid and resilience and flexibility during times of peak demand, or a loss of power to Rose Acre Farms.

With five microgrids in operation across the state, Musilek said these sites continue to serve as learning opportunities for how North Carolina’s electric cooperatives can serve rural communities across the state.

“Projects like these are by far the best part of my job,” said Musilek. “These are the people we work for, and if we’re able to do something that they can benefit from, then everyone wins. We want to have a reputation for bringing solutions to our members; that’s the most rewarding part.”