USDA Rural Development loans fund improvements for WAPA customers

Mountain View Electric Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Farmers Electric Power Cooperative You are leaving WAPA.gov. are the latest WAPA customers to receive loans from the Rural Development program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Ann Hazlett made the announcement during a visit to the Central Iowa Power CooperativeYou are leaving WAPA.gov. the generation and transmission utility for Farmers Electric.

Farmers Electric Cooperative in Greenfield, Iowa, is receiving a $1.4 million USDA loan to invest in smart grid projects. The co-op plans to install more than 5,800 single-phase meters and additional meter reading equipment in its west-central Iowa service area.

MVEA, headquartered in Limon, Colorado, will use the investment to build 197 miles of line and make improvements to another 197 miles and other parts of the system. The loan amount includes $2.6 million for smart grid projects. The utility serves nearly 50,000 consumers in a 6,055-square mile territory covering Arapahoe, Crowley, Douglas, Elbert, El Paso, Lincoln and Pueblo counties.

In total, the USDA is investing $309 million in 16 projects through its Electric Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee program. It helps finance generation, transmission and distribution projects; system improvements; and energy conservation projects in communities with 10,000 or fewer residents.

The current round of loans is funding infrastructure improvements for utilities in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, South Dakota and Washington. MVEA and Farmers Electric are only the latest WAPA customers to access funding through the program to build and upgrade their infrastructure.

Most retail or power supply providers serving qualified rural areas may apply for a loan, including:

  • State and local governmental entities
  • Federally-recognized tribes
  • Nonprofits including cooperatives and limited dividend or mutual associations
  • For-profit businesses (must be a corporation or limited liability company)

Utilities may use the funds to finance maintenance, upgrades, expansions, facilities replacement, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. See the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations for additional guidance or contact your general field representative to learn more.

Efficient electrification worth talking about

According to EPRI, the key to efficient electrification is an integrated energy network that gives grid operators more resources to draw upon for balancing supply- and demand-side resources.

According to EPRI, the key to efficient electrification is an integrated energy network that gives grid operators more resources to draw upon for balancing supply- and demand-side resources. (Artwork by Electric Power Research Institute)

The Electric Power Research Institute recently launched its Efficient Electrification Initiative You are leaving WAPA.gov. to analyze the impacts of electrifying the end use of energy, where it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.

In an article in the EPRI JournalYou are leaving WAPA.gov. President and CEO Mike Howard drew a distinction between the original meaning of electrification—extending electrical service to people who lacked it—and EPRI’s demonstration program. Efficient electrification, Howard explained, looks to integrate the energy network to help achieve the most efficient use of energy and the cleanest production, delivery and consumption of that energy.

As defined in EPRI’s U.S. National Electrification Assessment, electrification refers to the adoption of electric end-use technologies to displace other commercial energy forms and provide new services. According to the assessment, electrification yields benefits to the economy that include:

  • Lower-cost power
  • Lower energy use
  • Reduced air emissions and water use
  • Improved health and safety for workers, potentially leading to gains in productivity and product quality
  • Greater grid flexibility and efficiency

More uses, less consumption
Among the assessment’s key findings is the expectation that electricity’s share of final energy consumption will grow from 21 percent today to 32–47 percent in 2050. Transportation—for personal vehicles and for commercial truck fleets and other heavier-duty applications—accounts for a large share of this growth. Advanced heat pumps, industrial process equipment and other technologies will also contribute to that increase.

The analysis considers regulatory and economic barriers and points to opportunities for financing, recalling how rural electrification financing enabled technology that dramatically increased farm production. In the 21st century, indoor agriculture through electrified production of crops could sharply reduce water and other resource consumption, Howard asserted.

Balancing act with benefits
One surprising fact that emerged from EPRI’s analysis is that even as electricity use increases, the overall use of energy decreases, hence the pairing of “efficient” with “electrification.” The entire energy system would become more efficient through efficient electrotechnologies, and become cleaner as it uses less energy to do the same work.

The efficient electrification scenario makes the entire system more dynamic, too. As more applications rely on electricity, grid operators have more resources to manage and draw upon for balancing supply- and demand-side resources.

Discover possibilities
To move the conversation about electrification forward, EPRI is hosting the inaugural Electrification 2018 International Conference & Exposition You are leaving WAPA.gov. Aug. 20-23 in Long Beach, California. Manufacturers, policymakers, academia, researchers, utility professionals and more will come together to explore the potential for electrifying at the point of end use.

This is an excellent opportunity to find out where electrification is today and where it could go tomorrow. Attendees will see the latest technologies in action and learn about the quantifiable benefits of electrification for consumers and the environment. Utilities and vendors will share cutting-edge practices from innovative programs they have implemented.

Now is the time for power providers to be talking about efficient electrification. Utilities that are ready to address the challenges and seize the opportunities can become leaders in efficiency, sustainability, service and customer satisfaction. Learn more about the conference You are leaving WAPA.gov. and don’t forget to share your stories with WAPA.

Source: EPRI Journal, 5/17/18

California building code requires rooftop solar for new homes

Starting in 2020, all new residential homes in California must be built solar ready. On May 7, the California Energy Commission approved the 2019 Building Energy CodeYou are leaving WAPA.gov. which includes that provision.

The California Energy Commission approved the 2019 Building Energy Code, which includes the provision that all new homes must be built solar ready, starting in 2020.

The California Energy Commission approved the 2019 Building Energy Code, which includes the provision that all new homes must be built solar ready, starting in 2020. (Photo by DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy)

This historic revision of building energy codes is expected to drive a large investment in residential rooftop solar and energy efficiency as California pursues its goal of getting 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030You are leaving WAPA.gov.

In addition to mandating rooftop solar, the code contains incentives for energy storage and requires new home construction to include advanced energy-efficiency measures. Using 2017 data, ClearView Energy Partners You are leaving WAPA.gov. estimate that the mandate could require between 68 and 241 megawatts of annual distributed solar buildout.

Good for consumers, solar, storage industries
The commission stated that the new code is meant to save Californians a net $1.7 billion on energy bills all told, while advancing the state’s efforts to build-out renewable energy.

Following the commission’s decision, solar developers such as Sunrun, Vivint Solar and First Solar experienced a surge in stock prices, Bloomberg reportedYou are leaving WAPA.gov.

The updated codes also allow builders to install smaller solar systems if they integrate storage in a new home, adding another incentive to include energy storage. California has been a leader in incentivizing energy storage. In January, the California Public Utility Commission moved to allow multiple revenue streams for energy storage, such as spinning reserve services and frequency regulation.

Utilities question policy
The solar industry received a prior boost in January 2016, when the CPUC approved its net metering 2.0 rate design. The state’s investor-owned utilities asserted at the time that net metering distributed generation from electricity consumers shifted the costs for the system’s maintenance and infrastructure onto consumers who do not own distributed generation.

ClearView analysts pointed to the distributed solar mandate as a possible opening for utilities to argue that California regulators should reconsider the net metering reform proposal. According to the report ClearView published ahead of the CEC’s decision, utilities that opposed the new rate-design could claim that mandating distributed solar alters the policy landscape enough to warrant further review of the compensation levels paid to excess generation.

Source: Utility Dive, 5/9/18

IREC provides online solar training for local code officials

A new rooftop photovoltaic solar array is being installed every minute in the United States, with 4 million expected to be generating power by 2020. Knowledgeable building code professionals are needed to make sure these systems are installed correctly and safely. To help ensure quality inspections, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council You are leaving WAPA.gov. has launched a new online interactive video solar training series You are leaving WAPA.gov. for local code officials.

Taking the approach of the popular DIY series, This Old House, developers have created videos that are as entertaining as they are informative. Online viewers join IREC Training Specialist Joe Sarubbi to follow seasoned building and electrical inspectors through the finer points of five different solar inspections. Each video highlights a different type of system and technology, including:

  • Microinverter systems
  • DC-DC converter systems
  • Tesla Powerwall energy storage systems
  • Ground mounted AC-coupled systems with energy storage
  • Commercial carport systems

Presented in an engaging, easy-to-watch video format, the training can be completed in just a handful of lunch-hour sessions and is aimed at new and experienced residential inspectors, as well as residential PV installers.

The videos incorporate the 2017 National Electrical Code and the most current international building, residential and fire codes. “The new PV Inspector Online Training course for code officials brings together a remarkable group of experienced PV system inspectors from across the country to present a wide variety of PV system types and technologies,” said Rebekah Hren, a member of the NEC’s Code Making Panel 4.

Check out this short video for a look at how the solar training for code officials looks and feels. The training is available online free of charge for a limited time.

IREC developed the training in conjunction with the International Association of Electrical Inspectors You are leaving WAPA.gov. and International Code Council You are leaving WAPA.gov. with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Continuing Education Units are available from the IAEI, ICC and the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. You are leaving WAPA.gov.

Source: Interstate Renewable Energy Council, 5/16/18

WAPA customers receive USDA Rural Development loans

Electric cooperatives WAPA serves in Colorado, Iowa and Minnesota are among the utilities receiving $276 million in guaranteed loans (PDF, 60 KB) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve system efficiency and reliability. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the investments in a March 13 press release the day before appearing at a Senate hearing on rebuilding American infrastructure. Loans are also going to utilities in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia.

USDA Rural Development’s Electric Program provides loan guarantees to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. Rural Development assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. These are the kinds of projects that could make the areas more inviting to new businesses, the people the businesses would need to fill jobs.

Improving transmission, more
The transmission system of Minnesota Valley Cooperative Light & Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. will get 52 miles of new lines, 14 miles of improvements and $560,000 in smart grid upgrades as part of a $10,569,000 Rural Development loan. The co-op provides electric service to more than 5,200 consumers over 3,273 miles of line in eight counties with primarily agriculture-based economies. Small commercial loads account for 10 percent of kilowatt-hour sales. Large commercial accounts, including an ethanol plant, cheese production facility and casino, account for the remaining kWh sales and revenue.

Southeast Colorado Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. will use $13,000,000 in Rural Development funds to build 72 miles of line, improve 125 miles and make other system improvements. A member of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, You are leaving WAPA.gov. the La Junta-based co-op serves 7,688 residential, nearly 1,500 irrigation and 1,100 commercial consumers across a 13,000-square-mile service territory that covers 11 Colorado counties.

“This funding will allow SECPA to advance important infrastructure efforts and provide reliable, affordable electricity essential to sustaining the economic well-being and quality of life for rural Coloradans,” said Sallie Clark, USDA Rural Development Colorado state director.

Southwest Iowa Rural Electric Cooperative You are leaving WAPA.gov. will receive a $6,100,000 loan to build 69 miles of line, upgrade 96 miles and make other system improvements, including $775,000 for smart grid projects. The projects the co-op chose to put in its Rural Development application came from its $11.4 million construction work plan for 2017-2020. “We do a plan every four or five years to identify infrastructure needs like replacing lines or poles or expanding the system where the population is growing,” explained Phil Kinser, Southwest Iowa REC chief executive officer.

A member of Central Iowa Power Cooperative, You are leaving WAPA.gov. Southwest’s local economy relies heavily on agriculture. Like other recipients, the co-op’s service territory has steadily lost population over the last decade due to younger residents leaving for metropolitan areas.

Funding available
Applying for a Rural Development Loan is now more streamlined since the USDA moved much of the application process online. “Providing additional information or answers to follow-up questions is much quicker and easier,” Kinser observed.

But a good working relationship with the local USDA field office still makes for a less-stressful application process. Kinser offered kudos to Pat Bormann, General Field Representative with the Rural Utilities Service – Electric Programs. “Pat did a great job of helping us to navigate the application process,” Kinser recalled. “His assistance was invaluable.”

Applications for the Rural Energy for America Program Renewable Energy Systems & Energy Efficiency Improvement Loans & Grants are due April 30. Contact your local field office for more information.

WAPA congratulates Minnesota Valley Cooperative Light & Power Association, Southeast Colorado Power Association and Southwest Iowa Rural Electric Cooperative for taking the initiative to improve their systems and their communities.

Utility Dive releases annual survey report

Unpredictability has become the new normal for the power industry as Utility Dive’s fifth annual State of the Electric Utility Survey You are leaving WAPA.gov. makes clear.

Artwork by Utility Dive

The survey of nearly 700 electric utilities in the U.S. and Canada indicated that their commitment to lower-carbon energy resources remains strong even as concern over market and policy uncertainty grows. Other top takeaways include:

  • Expectations of load growth – Since 2008, utilities have faced stagnant or declining demand for electricity, but this year, utility professionals see that trend changing.
  • Uncertainty, particularly in regard to federal regulation – Nearly 40 percent of utility professionals named uncertainty as their top concern about changing their power mix — almost twice the level of concern expressed about integrating distributed energy resources (DER) with utility systems.
  • Cybersecurity fears – For the second year running, participants placed cybersecurity at the top of their list of concerns, with about 81 percent rating it either important or very important.
  • Justifying emerging grid investments – Utilities see the need to invest in grid intelligence to manage electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, DER, storage, analytics and cybersecurity. However, demonstrating the return on such high-tech investments to regulators, ratepayers and even their own organizations is complicated.
  • Traditional cost-of-service regulation falling from favor – Utilities are ready to adapt their business models to take advantage of new technologies and market opportu­nities. Around 80 percent indicated they either have or want a regulatory proceeding in their state focused on reforming utility business and revenue models.

Perhaps the most positive message to be taken from the results of the 2018 survey is how many utilities are willing to rethink the traditional business model in the face of changes in the industry. The report has a laundry list of other important insights on rate design, DER ownership, the increasing popularity of EVs and more. Whether you participated in the survey this year or not, it is sure to make for interesting reading.

You can download the 86-page survey report for free, or read a rundown of the top results with graphs. Utility Dive also hosted a sneak-peak webinar on the results at the end of January, which you can listen to for free.

Source: Utility Dive, 2/27/18

GCEA program introduces members to clean transportation

Electric vehicle (EV) technology has come such a long way in a short time that Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) has included member education in its marketing plan to promote this promising new load.

GCEA added the Chevy Spark-e to its fleet of company cars in 2016. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one reason people don't buy electric vehicles is that they have never had the chance to drive or ride in one.

GCEA added the Chevy Spark-e to its fleet of company cars in 2016. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one reason people don’t buy electric vehicles is that they have never had the chance to drive or ride in one. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

GCEA offers members a rebate on EV chargers and a time-of-use (TOU) rate to encourage EV owners to shift their charging to off-peak times. The program has been in place for almost two years and now supports an estimated 40 vehicles—about a dozen all-electric—in the cooperative’s service territory. That is an impressive uptake rate for the new technology, especially in a largely rural area with harsh winters. It points to the importance of laying the groundwork with customers to help them embrace innovation.

Fueling up
Expanding the supporting infrastructure for EVs was the first step GCEA took to launch an EV program. A January 2016 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) exploring barriers to EV adoption found that awareness of charging stations was the biggest factor in public acceptance. “We were already gearing up the program when the NREL report came to our attention,” recalled GCEA CEO Mike McBride. “It mostly just confirmed what we already suspected.”

Working with the nearby ski resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado, GCEA energized the first public EV charging station in Gunnison County in late 2015. A grant from the Colorado Energy Office assisted with the purchase and installation. Crested Butte dedicated two parking spots in the middle of town to the charger, a generous gesture considering the shortage of parking in the ski town. “We were understandably nervous about letting a parking space go unused,” McBride observed. “Fortunately, a member who likes to ski there bought a Chevy Volt in December 2015, which certainly helped with utilization early on.”

GCEA's Chevy Spark-e refuels at the charging station the co-op installed in Lake City , Colorado. The model has a range of up to 80 miles from a full charge.

GCEA’s Chevy Spark-e refuels at the charging station the co-op installed in Lake City , Colorado. The model has a range of up to 80 miles from a full charge. (Photo by Gunnison County Electric Association)

Another grant from the Charge Ahead Colorado program supported the installation of another public electric vehicle charging station in Lake City in October of 2016. The station is the same model as the Crested Butte charger, so EV owners enjoy ease of use and familiarity with the equipment.

Meet the EVs
The NREL study also asked if respondents had been in an EV, and most answered that they had not. That hands-on experience is central to convincing people that an EV is a viable choice for personal transportation, noted McBride. “Few people have actually driven, or even ridden in a plug-in electric vehicle,” he added.

By the spring of 2016, two GCEA staff members had their own plug-in EVs and GCEA acquired a plug-in hybrid for its CEO’s use: GCEA got a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, a lineman bought a Nissan Leaf and McBride got a Fiat 500 E. Co-op employees had the chance to drive the vehicles at a company meeting, and “People were surprised by the performance,” said McBride.

GCEA board members decided that it would be great for members to have the same opportunity to test drive an EV at the open house for the Crested Butte charging station. McBride began to look for a rental car but couldn’t find a company that carried EVs. “It seems they had trouble renting them out, so they just phased EVs out of their fleets,” he said.

Not to be deterred, board members authorized the purchase of an EV for the GCEA fleet. Saving gas costs, using the company product to fuel the car and showing members that their co-op walked the walk seemed like a win all the way around, so GCEA bought a Chevy Spark EV.

The company EV has made appearances at open houses, member meetings and even a car show in Gunnison, along with a couple of the employee-owned EVs. One particularly savvy market strategy has been to loan the car for a week to members who are community or thought leaders or who show some interest in the technology.

Making inroads
These efforts have resulted in a slow but steady change in GCEA members’ perception of electric vehicles. “People would say, ‘It’s great but it won’t work for me—I live 20 miles out of town.’ But that is well within range of a charged vehicle,” McBride said. “They worry about not being able to drive an EV in the winter, but now they are seeing EV owners driving their cars year-round.”

Challenges remain, including those specific to a Colorado mountain town. While familiarity tends to ease drivers’ “range anxiety” over time, “When the temperature drops below 32 degrees, the range does go down,” McBride acknowledged.

The relative lack of charging stations between GCEA’s stations and neighboring communities still presents a barrier, too. “If it is cold and snowing and the nearest charger is 65 miles away, that is a real problem for an EV owner,” said McBride. He added, however, “In many two-car households, there would be no inconvenience if one of the cars was electric with the other capable of longer trips.”

Raising awareness, gathering data
As EV ownership becomes more common among GCEA members, the marketing—and education— messages are shifting to focus on time of use.

Most consumers are only vaguely aware of concepts like on-peak rates and demand charges. “But we don’t want them to fuel their vehicles with the least-efficient resource or wind up paying more than necessary for cleaner transportation,” McBride explained.

By requiring members who apply for the charger rebate to sign up for TOU rates, GCEA is encouraging consumers to be more thoughtful about when and how they use energy. The charger rebate has also created a ready-made sample for a case study on TOU rates. “EVs are a great subject because they are a discrete load,” said McBride. “Members know when their vehicles are charging and can clearly understand how that affects their usage pattern.”

Therein lies the difference between a good customer program and a great one. A good program helps customers save money and energy and helps the utility control its load. A great program teaches customers about energy use and creates a dialogue between consumers and their power provider. By that measure, GCEA’s EV program is on track to achieve greatness.

 

ED3 announces 2018 electric rate decrease of 2 percent

The price of necessities only goes in one direction—up—but don’t tell Electrical District No. 3 You are leaving WAPA.gov. (ED3). The Maricopa, Arizona, public utility is lowering its 2018 electric rates an average of 2 percent for residential, commercial, small industrial, large industrial and agriculture customers.

At a time when other utilities and businesses across the nation are raising their rates, the ED3 board of directors approved a rate decrease for the third year in a row. CEO and General Manager William Stacy attributes this exciting accomplishment to sound management and a diligent planning process.

Partnership cuts costs
Specifically, Stacy noted the benefits of being part of the Southwest Public Power Agency You are leaving WAPA.gov. (SPPA). In 2014, ED3 formed the joint action agency with 17 other Arizona public power and tribal utilities. Members enjoy economies of scale in terms of managing existing resources and developing new ones, Stacy explained. “We see a lot of benefits for our customers, particularly those in Arizona’s rural or tribal areas,” he added.

A new power pooling agreement with SPPA for electricity from the Hoover Dam has allowed ED3 to reduce costs for balancing services. This year ED3 was able to move its controlling area into the Arizona Electric Power Cooperative’s You are leaving WAPA.gov. controlling area for additional savings on operating costs.

Planning for growth
To keep rates down, you also have to keep an eye on the future, especially in a community that is growing as fast as ED3’s service territory. “We are constantly reanalyzing our 10-year load growth plan,” said Stacy.

ED3 is the largest electrical district in the state, currently serving about 25,000 residential, commercial and irrigation meter connections. The district operates 12 distribution-level substations, and is building a new one to accommodate the average of 65 new homes springing up in the area each month. “In terms of rates, being large helps because we are able to spread fixed costs over a wide customer base,” Stacy acknowledged.

Wise use still important
Even with standard residential rates that are 10 percent lower than investor-owned Arizona Public Service, ED3 does not take customer satisfaction for granted. Programs to help customers manage their own energy use are very much a part of the district’s business model.

ED3 offers customers a Home Performance with Energy Star® Home Energy Audit for the heavily discounted price of $49. Homeowners can choose from a list participating contractors posted online. Customers can also attend free quarterly conservation workshops ED3 presents, and find energy conservation tips in the district’s bimonthly newsletter.

Rate, payment flexibility
In addition to having the lowest rates in the area, ED3 residential customers also have the choice of two time-of-use (TOU) rate schedules. The peak time for TOU-A is 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and 12-7 p.m. for TOU-B. The applications provide energy-saving tips so that customers can maximize the benefits of the schedule. “They can choose whichever one works best for them,” said Stacy.

ED3 also implemented a pre-paid metering program last year. Customers pre-pay for their electricity and receive daily text or email notifications of the amount they use and the amount remaining on their account. Studies have shown that customers who use a pre-pay option tend to use less electricity. Whether it is the energy savings or the feeling of control it gives customers, the program has proved surprisingly popular, Stacy observed. “We have 1,470 customers participating in it,” he said.

Which brings up another truism: People are always looking for ways to pay less for necessities. Luckily for ED3 customers, their utility is always looking for ways to help them.

Source: Public Power Daily, 11/6/17

Poudre Valley REA community solar project broadens access

Sometimes an idea is so good, you just want to be a part of it in some small way. That is how we at WAPA’s Energy Services felt when we learned that Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. (PVREA), one of our customers, was building a community solar array with GRID Alternatives Colorado You are leaving WAPA.gov. to serve its low-income and nonprofit customers.

Solar for all
The Coyote Ridge Solar Farm will cover nine acres near the Larimer County Landfill with more than 6,000 320-watt solar panels on a tracking system that follows the sun across the sky. PVREA will make 700 kilowatts (kW) of the 1,962-kW array available to low-to-moderate income subscribers and 500 kW for nonprofit organizations in the utility’s service territory. It will be the nation’s largest community solar project of its kind, and demonstrate complex financial modeling and unique siting.  PVREA has partnered with the nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternatives Colorado and the Colorado Energy Office You are leaving WAPA.gov. to develop the project.

In August of 2015, the Colorado Energy Office made a $1.2 million grant to GRID Alternatives Colorado for the express purpose of partnering with utilities to implement low-income community solar projects. That focus fit right in with a specific concern of the PVREA board of directors, noted the utility’s Alternative Energy Administrator Milton Geiger. “They were looking for a project that would bring the benefits of solar power to a greater number of our members,” he said. “Our board believes that equitable access to solar power is a cooperative principle.”

Learning by doing
Coyote Ridge is the seventh project to receive funding from the grant. Originally, the plan was to develop at least five different low-income solar projects with the grant, but GRID Alternatives knows how to stretch a funding dollar and build in community participation at the same time.

Designing a community solar array is a complex task, but assembling the parts calls mostly for elbow grease.

Like Habitat for Humanity, an organization to which it is frequently compared, GRID Alternatives invites individuals and community groups to participate in both residential and commercial-scale solar installations. Although designing a solar array is a complex task, assembling the racking and setting modules turn out to be mostly measuring, lifting, lining up and tightening screws. Low-income homeowners and church and community service groups can participate in building the facilities that will lower their energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. More importantly, for those interested in long-term careers in the field, GRID Alternatives provides hours of hands-on training.

WAPA gets involved
The project came up during discussions at a community solar workshop WAPA hosted in early June. At first glance, it had everything we love to cover in Energy Services Bulletin stories: a WAPA customer developing renewable energy for the benefit of members who need it most. More than a third of the electricity produced will be offered at a reduced rate to PVREA households with income levels at or below 80 percent of their county’s median. When Geiger later explained GRID Alternatives’ involvement, and the volunteer opportunity, the story became irresistible.

So on a cold, rainy September morning, Energy Services Director Ron Horstman, Electronics Engineer Kevin Hogg and Energy Services Marketing Coordinator Kevon Storie (me) showed up at the site near the Larimer County Landfill, ready to build some solar. For a little background, our personal experience with solar construction runs the gamut. Horstman installed a 3.2-kW solar array on his own home in 2009, while it was Hogg’s first time working on an installation. I have—well—I’ve seen a lot of pictures of photovoltaic systems.

Satisfaction guaranteed
The crew was 53 strong that day, including several individuals, a group from a Unitarian church and engineering students from the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University and Denver University.

When we arrived, the rack for the lower half of the array was partially assembled, but many hands made light work. The crew first learned to install the vertical “arms” that hold up the solar modules, and then moved on to mounting the modules themselves. Shortly after lunch, the array was completely assembled and ready to be wired by professional electricians in the coming week. The crew put up a total of 999 solar panels and continued working on the racking on the second section of the solar farm.

The work was hard and the weather was dreary, but the experience was enlightening. Hogg, who lives in Loveland, Colorado, was gratified to see community engagement in action, and is now interested in adding a solar array to his home. Horstman enjoyed talking to the students about their studies and about WAPA. (Note to utilities and related industries: Volunteering for GRID Alternatives is a great way to meet intern candidates.) For my part, I increased my minimal understanding of solar construction and was delighted to see so much progress in the space of a single day.

“We’re from the government and we’re here to help!” WAPA Volunteers from left to right: Kevin Hogg, Ron Horstman and Kevon Storie.

Size, site matter
PVREA joins other WAPA customers in working with GRID Alternatives and the CEO. Empire Electric AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. Delta Montrose Electric AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. Holy Cross EnergyYou are leaving WAPA.gov. Yampa Valley Electric AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. Fort Collins UtilitiesYou are leaving WAPA.gov. San Miguel Power AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. and Grand Valley Power You are leaving WAPA.gov. have all been partners in developing community solar farms that offer solar credits to low-income subscribers. Once constructed, the facilities become utility-owned assets.

Each installation demonstrates a unique characteristic that makes it work for the utility. In the case of PVREA, Coyote Ridge is sited on a large tract of unused land next to the Larimer County landfill that will have minimal environmental impact. The size of the farm is another key aspect of the project. “It drives the economy of scale and makes it replicable for other utilities,” said Geiger.

Replicability is central to the Low-Income Community Solar Demonstration Project. GRID Alternatives, the Colorado Energy Office and utility partners are demonstrating that the benefits of renewable energy are for everyone, one solar installation at a time.

Long road leads to solar success for Southern Ute tribe

Tenacity paid off for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe on July 24, when they dedicated their newly commissioned and fully operational Oxford Solar Project on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado.

The Southern Ute Tribe built their solar array on the mostly unusable Oxford Tract near a substation and just three miles from the tribal building campus.

The Southern Ute Tribe built their solar array on the mostly unusable Oxford Tract near a substation and just three miles from the tribal building campus. (Photo by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe)

The years it took to develop the 1.3-megawatt (MW), ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) system ultimately ensured that the project was a winner for all involved. The array will reduce operating costs for the tribe by offsetting about 15 percent of the energy used by 10 tribal buildings. The siting of the project repurposes more than 10 acres of tribal land that was mostly unusable due to naturally occurring selenium contamination. The Oxford Tract, as the land parcel is called, has strong solar resources, is located near two substations and does not have any endangered or threatened species on it. La Plata Electric AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. which is purchasing the power and providing the grid connection, counts the electricity toward its goal of 20 percent local generation by 2020.

Slow start gathers steam
The Southern Ute Tribe first began to explore the idea of building a PV system in 2006 as a way of diversifying its business interests, and launched the Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC (SUAE) in 2008. As a for-profit business, the SUAE evaluated solar PV development opportunities on tribal lands from a business perspective. For several years, alternative energy projects remained stubbornly out of reach, too costly for SUAE to pursue.

The turning point came in 2011 when the tribe performed a new feasibility study to look at potential sites and business models. James Jensen, who had recently joined the SUAE staff, recalled that the study was very thorough. “We were open to projects either on or off of tribal land,” he said. “If it was on tribal land, what was the best location? We evaluated environmental factors like whether the land was arable or disturbed or in a floodplain.”

The study also considered the proximity of transmission and substations to potential sites and did economic modeling on hypothetical projects. “We came out of the process with a comprehensive understanding of what would make a successful solar project,” said Jensen.

The findings determined that the Oxford Tract was the most suitable location for a utility-scale solar development, and that a grant was needed to make the project economical.

JumpSTARTing project
Southern Ute Grant Specialist Jody Rosier began working with Jensen on the grant application to submit to the Department of Energy (DOE). Financial help wasn’t the only thing DOE had to offer the tribe, however.

Just as important, Rosier recalled, was the tribe’s participation in the Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Program. START, a program of the DOE Office of Indian Energy, provides technical assistance to help Native American tribes complete renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. “START analyzed and validated the findings of the feasibility study,” Rosier recalled, “and helped the tribe to establish a relationship with DOE.”

The program also helped the tribe determine the siting of the project near substations belonging to LPEA. “Initially, the project was planned as a ‘virtual metering’ situation, where any kilowatt-hours being generated would offset kilowatt-hours the tribe was using,” explained LPEA Engineering Manager Ron Meier. “Siting the array near a substation was key to making physics work. It really simplified the development process for them.”

Beyond that, Meier added, the purchase power agreement was pretty straightforward. With a budget of $3 million co-funded by the tribe and a $1.5 million grant from the DOE, it was time to start building.

Ready, set, install!
SUAE issued a request for proposals at the end of 2014 for an 800-kW system. It was around that time that the solar industry saw a significant drop in the price of panels. “We were pleasantly surprised when the bids came back to find that we could afford to build a somewhat larger project,” said Jensen.

The tribe chose Boulder, Colorado-based Namaste Solar to design the project for the tribe and install the tracking panels. Jody Rosier noted that tracking technology is becoming more common in new solar installations. “Panels that follow the sun across the sky generate more electricity and that improves a project’s economics,” she said.

The long process that culminated in the July 24 celebration provided the Southern Ute tribe with a thorough education in solar development. Jensen observed that the most important lesson they learned might be to keep the first project simple. He pointed to the selection of a site that did not require an environmental impact study as one factor that kept the project from getting too financially and legally complicated.

Although grants that require matching funds may put projects beyond a tribe’s reach, Rosier encourages tribes that are interested in developing renewable energy systems to investigate available grants. “Grants that require matching funds may not work for tribes,” she warned. “But once the renewable system is up and running, it provides years of sustainable electricity and needs little maintenance.” 

Source: Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, 7/25/17