Community solar project expands VEA solar portfolio

A leader in solar water heating programs is now adding 15 megawatts of photovoltaic energy to its electricity supply. Valley Electric Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (VEA) has constructed a 54,000-panel solar plant on 80 acres of desert near the California-Nevada border and plans to sell the power to members at a lower price than their current electric rates.

VEA's 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes.

VEA’s 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. (Photo by Valley Electric Association)

The community solar project located just north of Pahrump, Nevada, VEA’s home town, produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. The goal of the plant, according to VEA CEO Thomas H. Husted, is to give members more choice of energy resources.

Members were showing interest in solar but weren’t able to install their own arrays, said Kristin Mettke, VEA executive vice president of Engineering and Compliance. “Also, there aren’t many large solar contracting companies in our service area,” she said. “This project was a good way to offer solar to our members at an economy of scale.”

VEA plans to turn the project into a subscription program. For now, however, the clean electricity is helping the co-op meet its growing demand with a low-cost resource.

Partnering to protect wildlife
Even projects intended to save money—and the environment—come with complications, however, and the community solar project was no different. The chosen site was home to sensitive plants and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise, so accommodations had to be made.

VEA and solar contractor Bombard Renewable Energy worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a habitat conservation plan to minimize the disturbing effects of construction “It gave us the opportunity to try different approaches,” observed Mettke.

Measures included relocating tortoises to a temporary habitat before beginning construction and installing temporary fencing and tortoise-proof access gates to prevent them from returning. The completed project had a permanent security fence with tortoise access points to allow the animals to reenter the site.

To provide habitat for the tortoises, the native vegetation was mowed, crushed or trimmed, rather than removed. Increasing the height and spacing of the PV panels and installing them to follow the natural undulations of the land will also allow the vegetation to recover more quickly after construction.

Solar water heater pioneer
The community solar project continues VEA’s tradition of using solar solutions to provide members with affordable power. In 2009, the co-op launched what was, at the time, the largest solar hot water program in the country.

For around $30 per month paid on-bill, members can install a Rheem solar water heating system. This highly efficient technology uses the sun’s heat to reduce the need for conventional hot water heating by as much as two-thirds. Members can save about $250 to $540 in annually and enjoy 50-100 percent greater hot water capacity.

With 835 systems installed to date, the program avoids more than 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually while building local workforce skills. VEA estimates that solar water heating will save members about $34 million over the next 20 years by decreasing peak power demands and delaying future upgrades to capital infrastructure.

Planning next steps
Now that the solar project is completed, VEA has begun to talk with battery vendors about adding backup storage. “A battery system would complement solar power and help with resource adequacy and shoulder times,” said Mettke.

The co-op is also developing a subscription program that would allow members to lease panels. The program would be introduced through VEA Ambassadors, members who take an active interest in the day-to-day operations of their utility and who offer feedback on VEA initiatives, activities and policies from a consumer perspective. The Ambassadors were instrumental in rolling out VEA’s solar hot water program in 2009.

The solar hot water program and now the utility-scale community solar project have given VEA valuable hands-on experience developing and integrating renewable generation. That expertise may someday come in handy for developing cost-effective clean energy projects for California. The co-op became the first out-of-state utility to join the California Independent System Operator balancing authority in 2013, a move that could present such opportunities to VEA. It would be a challenge, but if it strengthens member relations and builds local workforce skills, Valley Electric Association is up to it.