Iowa leads the nation in installed wind capacity—only Texas ranks higher—but lags at 34th for installed solar, leaving utilities like Butler County Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) facing a learning curve. To fill in some of those knowledge gaps, the cooperative launched a demonstration project in late January that will allow it to collect data about solar energy and pass it on to its members.
It was growing consumer interest that led to the project, according to Craig Codner, Butler County REC chief executive officer. “As our members continue in the direction of having more interest in renewable energy, we want to share accurate information with them,” he explained. “We want to help members make informed decisions.”
Putting it together
The exploration began with the selection of a 230.6 (kW) direct-current (DC)/147-kilowatt (kW) alternating-current solar array manufactured by Ten K Solar of Minnesota. Codner said the co-op board chose the Duo High-Density system because it was designed for maximum energy generation and has an excellent warranty.
The system’s wave format features both north- and south-facing modules, increasing the opportunity for demand reduction. The north-facing modules will generate more electricity earlier and later in the day, while the south-facing units will produce higher amounts in the middle of the day, increasing the energy per square foot.
A crew from Western Iowa Power Cooperative installed the system at Butler County REC’s warehouse in Horton, north of Waverly, Iowa. The system is interconnected to Butler County REC’s distribution system with bi-directional metering, rather than net metering. The electricity offsets energy and demand at a rate contracted through Corn Belt Power, Butler County REC’s generation and transmission provider.
The co-op expects the arrays to generate about 268,000 kilowatt-hours per year, or enough to serve approximately 15 to 20 members annually. Members and co-op employees can monitor the solar project’s real-time output through a web-based kiosk. Codner said that there are plans to add an educational video to the website, as well. “One of the main reasons for the project is to help members understand solar better, how things like cloud cover or particulates in air affect capacity factor,” he explained.
Paying for experience
The project’s total cost of approximately two dollars per DC watt is partially funded by a $20,000 Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant, New Clean Renewable Energy Bond (CREB) financing and a federal tax credit.
This was the first time Butler County REC received REAP funding, offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Applying for the REAP grant and for New CREB financing from the National Rural Co-op Finance Corporation was a labor-intensive experience, Codner acknowledged. “I would advise co-ops to look carefully at all their financing options when they undertake a renewable energy project,” he said. “Self-financing avoids a lot of paperwork.”
Continuing renewables support
The new solar array may be Butler County REC’s first foray into utility-owned renewables, but the co-op has offered members the opportunity to support member-owned clean energy projects since 2006. The Energy Wise Renewables program initially supported only wind projects but has been expanded to include solar and other types of generation that enhance the traditional electric power supply. Codner estimates that there are 350 to 500 kW of solar interconnected to the co-op’s system.
Butler County REC is absorbing the solar project’s cost rather than using Energy Wise dollars to offset it, Codner added. “We decided that those dollars should go to member projects as originally intended,” he said.
Now that the solar system is operational, Butler County REC is planning an open house to let members get a closer look at the project and ask questions. Codner is looking forward to testing manufacturer claims about the equipment and learning more about interconnection, operation and maintenance. “Safety—for members and our employees—is our No. 1 concern,” he stated.
If all goes well, the co-op board of directors is considering several possible locations for installing a second array in 2017. This second project may be a community solar initiative that would offer subscriptions for sale to members at a set rate for a certain period of time.
So far, the projects on Butler County REC’s system have been smaller ones that are most cost effective if the generation is consumed on site. But good customer service is about preparation and innovation. Butler County REC is taking steps today to make sure it is ready for whatever is coming tomorrow.
Source: In Touch newsletter, February 2017