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Solar power made easy

Community solar projects share benefits for electric co-op members

Starting in 2017, electric cooperative members tied to East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) will be able to license solar panels for their home or business from a solar farm located in Clark County, Kentucky.

“Community solar” is the latest development in one of the fastest-growing trends in renewable energy production. Instead of going to the trouble and expense of adding solar panels at their homes or businesses, individual electricity consumers can buy or lease one or more solar panels in an electric utility’s central array. Folks who participate may become eligible to receive a credit on their monthly bills for a portion of the renewable energy the panels produce.

“We’ve seen an explosion of interest in community solar among our member cooperatives. Community solar projects align very well with the co-op model because it’s a model of shared benefits,” says Tracy Warren, senior communications manager at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“For electric co-op members who are interested in harnessing renewable energy for their home or business, Cooperative Solar is the easy, affordable option,” says Anthony “Tony” Campbell, EKPC’s president and CEO.

By August 2016, 87 co-ops in more than 20 states had already constructed 103 community solar projects, with dozens of additional co-op community solar projects set to begin producing electricity next year.

Next spring, EKPC will begin installing 32,300 solar panels on 60 acres of the property at its headquarters facility, adjacent to Interstate 64 east of Lexington. The solar farm, one of the largest in Kentucky, is expected to begin generating electricity later in 2017.

Wider participation, lower costs
Placing many solar panels together in a central group array makes it possible for more people to support renewable energy. Traditional rooftop solar systems simply aren’t practical in a lot of situations. Many commercial buildings already have equipment mounted on the roof, leaving little or no room to add solar panels.

For homeowners, the roof itself is often the problem—it’s too shady, too steep, faces the wrong direction, or it’s not strong enough to support the extra weight of solar panels. For condominium owners, there may be deed restrictions that prohibit adding anything on or above the roof. Community solar solves all those problems, and also gives renters a chance to participate.

The expense of a multipanel rooftop system is also a huge barrier for many people. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on an entire system, co-op members can typically buy or lease a part of the array for much less than $1,000 per panel. That makes renewable energy a budget-friendly option for more co-op families and businesses.

Installing a lot of solar panels in one location also saves money and effort during the construction phase, makes ongoing maintenance simpler, and generally keeps costs lower than for widely separated individual projects.

“There are a lot of efficiencies that come with community solar projects,” Warren says. “The financial benefits that come with economies of scale, doing things together, are great for co-op members.” As interest in supporting renewable energy grows, many co-ops are taking great care when choosing a site for their community solar projects so that more panels can be added in the future as more members want to participate.

Learning from experience
Each community solar project is customized to the local area. While the physical details of these projects vary by location, one common feature involves monitoring the amount of electricity the panels produce—and then making that information available to members in real time. Using the latest computer technology, co-op members with internet access via computers or smartphones can see exactly how much electricity the panels are producing throughout the day.

That’s important as a co-op membership benefit, but it serves a larger purpose as well. Tracking and reporting the daily and long-term performance of the solar panels helps local distribution co-ops and statewide generation and transmission co-ops better understand the real-world, practical impact of renewable energy on the power grid.

During the planning stages for a community solar project, engineers look at historical weather data in their local area and the times for sunrise and sunset.

They make the best estimates possible about how much electricity the panels should be able to produce during a day, a month, and an entire year.

But nobody knows for sure until the panels are installed and begin to convert sunshine into electricity. Community solar projects are providing a reality check for the estimates. This information is proving useful for other co-ops as they plan new projects or expand existing solar arrays.

Co-op solar for Kentucky
EKPC and its 16 owner-member electric cooperatives, known collectively as Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, plan to license solar panels to co-op members, who will receive credit on their electric bills for their share of energy produced. The arrangement is known as Cooperative Solar.

With a one-time payment of $460 per panel, participants will receive the benefits of renewable energy for the next 25 years without having to install or maintain facilities on their own property. Their monthly electric bills will be credited for the value of the energy and capacity associated with their licensed share of the solar farm.

To learn more, visit www.CooperativeSolar.com.

“For electric co-op members who are interested in harnessing renewable energy for their home or business, Cooperative Solar is the easy, affordable option,” said Anthony “Tony” Campbell, EKPC’s president and CEO. Installing and maintaining a large number of panels in one location helps keep costs below that of most private solar installations.

Campbell noted that co-op members have requested such an option. In addition, the solar facility will help EKPC diversify its generating sources, which is a strategic goal of the cooperative.

Before EKPC’s 16 owner-member cooperatives can sell Cooperative Solar licenses, the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) must approve tariffs under which the transactions can take place. It is expected the co-ops will begin selling 25-year licenses in the next several months.

Development of the solar farm project was approved in November by the PSC. Construction of the solar farm is estimated to cost $17.7 million. EKPC plans to finance the project by issuing New Clean Renewable Energy Bonds to take advantage of federal incentives that can offset much of the interest expense.

EKPC’s 16 owner-member electric cooperatives are:

Big Sandy RECC, Paintsville, Ky.

Blue Grass Energy, Nicholasville, Ky.

Clark Energy Cooperative, Winchester, Ky.

Cumberland Valley Electric, Gray, Ky.

Farmers RECC, Glasgow, Ky.

Fleming-Mason Energy, Flemingsburg, Ky.

Grayson RECC, Grayson, Ky.

Inter-County Energy Cooperative, Danville, Ky.

Jackson Energy Cooperative, McKee, Ky.

Licking Valley RECC, West Liberty, Ky.

Nolin RECC, Elizabethtown, Ky.

Owen Electric Cooperative, Owenton, Ky.

Salt River Electric, Bardstown, Ky.

Shelby Energy Cooperative, Shelbyville, Ky.

South Kentucky RECC, Somerset Ky.

Taylor County RECC, Campbellsville, Ky.

Solar bonus in Minnesota
When Connexus Energy in Ramsey, Minnesota, designed its community solar project, it was able “to give our members what they’ve been asking for,” says Samantha Neral, Connexus communications specialist.

“They get the benefits of solar but without having to worry about the upkeep because we take care of the maintenance,” she says. But the members are not the only ones who benefit from the project.

“Instead of plain gravel at the site, we hired Prairie Restoration to make it look pretty with wildflowers—but it turns out that we’ve done something good, too,” Neral says. “We recently received a perfect 100 score at the solar site during a pollinator habitat assessment.

“Our community solar project is helping the struggling bees, butterflies, and other pollinators have the plants they need to survive and prosper.

Nancy Grant from November 2016 Issue

 

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