Sometimes, you just don’t know what people want until you ask them, as the municipal utilities board of directors in Fremont, Nebraska, learned when they set out to diversify their municipal power portfolio.
City Administrator Brian Newton recalled that one of his first projects after joining the city staff three years ago was to work with the board of directors on a strategic plan for their power supply. At the time, the city of around 27,000 was powered mainly by coal and natural gas. “The board decided it would be a good idea to investigate adding other resources,” said Newton.
Consulting experts, customers
His initial reaction was that the customers would not be interested in solar energy. After all, Fremont residents enjoy a low residential rate of just 8 cents per kWh, and no one had installed a privately owned solar system.
That was a smart move, because SEPA research has shown that a successful community solar project starts with knowing your audience. The survey SEPA conducted was an eye-opener for Newton. “More than 70 percent said they were interested in solar power, and some said they’d pay $10 more per month for it, which I doubted,” he said.
Just to make sure the survey results were on track, Newton held numerous public meetings to explain community solar to customers and get feedback from them. More than 500 people signed up to receive information about solar energy and many were adamant about joining the community affair. They not only wanted the solar power to be sold in Fremont, they also wanted it built by local developers, financed by local money and under community control.
Designed to sell
To make participation easy, Fremont put together a unique package of options. Customers can choose between purchasing panels, buying one or more solar energy shares and subscribing to a combination of panels and shares.
Solar subscriptions can cover up to 80 percent of residential customers’ annual kilowatt-hour consumption and 50 percent for commercial customers. One panel generates an average of 43 kWh monthly, while one solar energy share represents 150 kWh monthly. Customers who purchase panels are able to take advantage of the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit, making participation even more attractive.
If the utility board of directors had any remaining doubts about customers’ interest in solar, those were laid to rest when the 1.5-megawatt solar farm sold out in seven weeks. Fremont promoted the project with customer meetings, emails and bill stuffers, the usual avenues for getting the word out. Newton noted that the 1.2-MW second phase of the solar farm is selling out by word of mouth alone.
Newton may have been surprised by customers’ eagerness to invest in renewables, but he told SEPA the rural community’s latent environmentalism shouldn’t be surprising. The community has always been firmly rooted to the land because agriculture is central to the local economy, he said. “Damaging the land or air isn’t an abstract idea. Fremonters can see the impact of environmental degradation on their livelihoods.”
Or, as one resident observed, Fremont’s support for solar power is not a surprise, as much as it is the natural progression of a long history of civic involvement in environmental stewardship.
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(PVREA), one of our customers, was building a community solar array with GRID Alternatives Colorado 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 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.
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.
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.
The future is here and resistance is futile. Public power utilities of all sizes are facing a new world shaped by technology, customer preferences and changing policies. These changes are most evident in five key areas:
The American Public Power Association wants to help power providers navigate these changes and explore the opportunities this new environment presents. Beginning Aug. 15, a five-part webinar series looks at new initiatives through the experiences of the utilities that implemented them.
APPA recommends this series for general managers, CEOs, senior utility executives, governing boards, policymakers, utility managers, future leaders in policy and strategy and public communications professionals.
Comprehensive agendas You can sign up for webinars individually or register for the full series at a discounted rate. Participants will also get access to recordings and slides of the webinars for future reference or if they miss one. All webinars are scheduled for 12-1:30 p.m. Mountain Time.
Aug. 15 – The Future of Rate Design: Distributed generation and energy-efficiency programs are creating cost-shifting concerns. Catch up on the latest industry rate trends and discover how to move toward stable rate structures that accurately recover costs from all customers. Review the pros and cons of different rate models—time of use, higher customer charge, demand charges and bi-directional billing. Learn how other utilities like yours have created long-term rate plans, selected and implemented new rate designs, and obtained buy-in from board and city council members as well as customers.
Sept. 7 – Community Solar Success Stories: Community solar is becoming an increasingly popular option for utilities that want to increase solar in their generation portfolios and offer this option to customers who cannot install rooftop solar. An industry expert will share experiences, insights and predictions for the future of community solar. Your utility colleagues who’ve launched community solar programs across the country will explain how they made decisions in key areas like program structure, implementation, financing, customer outreach, rates and marketing. They’ll discuss challenges and the secrets to success so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Sept. 26 – Charging Ahead with Electric Vehicles: The price of electric cars is falling, and more fast-charging stations are being installed. The Brattle Group predicts that a steady conversion of vehicles and heating to electricity could possibly lead to a 105-percent increase in electricity demand by 2050. If these new loads start to proliferate in your community, are you ready to support them? Now is the time to plan for EV infrastructure and to make important cost-benefit decisions. Learn about new developments and advances in EVs and how they are impacting the utility industry. Hear about innovative public power EV programs and get insights regarding how to work with customers to spur investment in EVs, develop fair pricing models and plan for potential load growth.
Oct. 12 – Best Practices in Battery Storage: The evolution of energy storage is changing how we produce and consume energy like never before. Technological advances, reduced costs and mandates from regulators have positioned energy storage for unprecedented growth. Get up to speed on where we are and what to expect in the future. Three public power utilities will talk about their award-winning storage projects and the realities of implementation, from selecting a developer and siting to leveraging benefits such as peak shaving and financial impacts. Your pioneering colleagues will help you navigate the bold new path of utility-scale battery storage.
Oct. 26 – Smart Meters for Smart Solutions: Learn from utilities that have installed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Gear up for the real-world challenges and understand how other utilities like yours are using AMI and integrating with other technologies. Understand how to fully leverage the benefits of smart meters — to predict load and usage, implement time-of-use rates, respond better to outages, assess the need for system upgrades and offset peak demand charges. Gather best practices on transitioning rate structures, educating customers and soliciting feedback.
Registration information You can sign up for the entire series or register for each webinar individually. Individual webinars cost $99 for APPA members and $199 for nonmembers. Register for all five webinars for $395 for APPA members or $795 for nonmembers, a discount equivalent to one webinar.
Source: American Public Power Association, 7/10/17
Community solar projects are a successful business model where multiple customers share in a large solar array, paid for through individual utility bills. It has seen such rapid growth across the country that it has become almost commonplace. Despite that fact, utilities are still learning about every aspect of this resource. It is important to get your project off on the right foot or correct missteps before they mushroom.
WAPA’s Renewable Resources Program has teamed up with the Community Solar Value Program (CSVP) to make it affordable for power providers to share best practices in developing this type of generation. There is no registration fee for this event; attendees need only pay for their travel to Golden, Colorado. “Helping our preference utility customers learn about community solar and other renewable technologies, as well as tools and resources for smooth integration are a core part of WAPA’s Renewable Resource Program,” explained Randy Manion, WAPA Renewable Resources program manager.
The agenda draws from an investigation conducted by CSVP into utilities’ best practices and innovations in community solar. From design to procurement to marketing, participants will hear from expert speakers and utility peers who will share their experiences. Presentations by WAPA customers include Kit Carson Electric Cooperative on requests for proposals and Sacramento Municipal Utility District on integrating community solar with distributed systems.
WAPA’s Electric Power Training Center (EPTC) in Golden, Colorado, is hosting the event. The workshop will begin at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 7, with a “lightning round” of community solar best-practice presentations and a tour of EPTC’s grid simulator, followed by a networking reception. On Thursday, June 8, the workshop will convene from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with breaks and a networking lunch provided by Extensible Energy LLC included.
Registration is free, but required. Participants only cover travel and hotel costs and incidentals.
Don’t miss this opportunity to explore this promising strategy for incorporating solar power into your resource mix.
A leader in solar water heating programs is now adding 15 megawatts of photovoltaic energy to its electricity supply. Valley Electric Association (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.
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.
What is the toughest challenge for an electric cooperative or public power utility in planning for community solar? Many utilities say it is solar resource procurement; for others, the top challenge would be pricing that works for both the utility and the customer, and turning that into a program offer. The Community Solar Value Project (CSVP) and WAPA’s Renewable Resources Program have heard these frequently cited concerns, and they are responding with a new, one-and-a-half day workshop, Community Solar Procurements, Programs and Pricing, on June 7-8 at the WAPA Electric Power Training Center in Golden, Colorado. Registration is free and targeted at utilities in the West, whether they are in states like Colorado that have guiding community solar legislation or states in which community solar is an option that requires utility leadership and innovation.
According to Jill Cliburn, program manager for CSVP, this event will be the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year investigation into utilities’ best practices and innovations in community solar. Community solar, or community shared solar, describes a range of programs that allow customers to share, usually by a per-kilowatt-hour subscription or by leasing or buying panels, in a relatively large solar project, regardless of their ability to host a typical rooftop solar system. Projects are currently in place in 29 states, with the total market expected to grow by 20 percent or more annually.
“We’re also making time for participants to share their own unique challenges and solutions, so everyone will leave the workshop with actionable notes and resources,” Cliburn said.
Working with a utility forum group of about 10 utilities in the West, CSVP has put emphasis on practical solutions. For example, the project’s approach to pricing begins with streamlined utility-side economic analysis, but takes into account the market-target price required for program success. CSVP also has introduced new ways to package community solar with other utility program offers. And the project has published easy-to-use resource guides and checklists to help keep other tasks, from market research to completing the project RFP and procurement, on track and on budget.
Community Solar Procurements, Programs and Pricing begins at 3:00 p.m. (MDT) on Wednesday June 7, with a “lightning round” of community solar best-practice presentations and a quick tour of WAPA’s grid simulator, followed by a cash-bar networking reception. On Thursday June 8, the workshop convenes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with lunch and breaks included. There is no cost for utility representatives to participate in this workshop, thanks to CSVP sponsorship by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative and Solar Market Pathways Program and workshop co-sponsorship from the WAPA Renewable Resources Program and Extensible Energy, LLC, the prime contractor for CSVP. Participants only cover travel and hotel costs and incidentals. For more information, see the registration website or contact workshop coordinator Nicole Enright.
The award-winning, 40-kilowatt (kW) Capture the Sun Community Solar Garden went online in 2015, after public outreach indicated strong support for more solar options. Moorhead customers pay for the power output of one of the 144 non-rotating, photovoltaic (PV) panels that make up the array. The value of the energy generated by the panels is prorated annually in the form of bill credits to participating customers. MPS is responsible for ongoing maintenance and delivering the energy to subscribers’ homes and businesses.
“The point of the gardens is to allow people who don’t have the ability to have solar panels at their home, to help feed solar energy into the grid,” said MPS Energy Services Manager Dennis Eisenbraun. “That fits the criteria for the Energy Innovator Award very well.”
The award recognizes utility programs that demonstrate advances in the development or application of creative, energy-efficient techniques or technologies. Judges also look for programs that improve service to electric customers or projects that increase the efficiency of utility operations or resource efficiency. Transferability and project scope in relation to utility size are also considered. APPA presented the award during its annual National Conference in June in Phoenix, Arizona.
Keeping customers satisfied Although support for clean energy—especially the home-grown kind—is strong among consumers, many homes and businesses are not in the position, literally or figuratively, to install solar. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about three-quarters of all buildings are not suitable for a solar array due to shading, roof orientation, structural issues and other concerns.
Shared solar, however, has the potential to greatly increase consumer access to solar PV, a fact not lost on MPS customers. “We did an initial survey to gauge customer interest last year, and then held a couple of public meetings,” Eisenbraun recalled. “Finally, we sent out a mass mailing seeking a commitment to the project and there was an overwhelming positive response.”
Capture the Sun quickly attracted more subscribers than it had panels to accommodate them. “We knew before we finished building the 2015 project that it was only going to be ‘Phase One,’” said Eisenbraun. “Between the waiting list and a second mass mailer sent earlier this year, we had enough support to go ahead with another array in 2016.”
Poised for success The second phase of Capture the Sun will be fully subscribed when it goes online this fall. MPS is planning a public dedication, Oct. 4, during Public Power Week.
The success of the solar garden is not surprising, given that Moorhead residents are already familiar with the concept of community renewable energy development. MPS built two wind turbines, one in 1999 and another in 2001, and more than 800 customers signed up to support the Capture the Wind program with a small green power tariff on their monthly electricity bills. “Our first foray into renewable energy was a resounding success,” Eisenbraun acknowledged. “The turbines were a great public relations tool and they reached payback in just 11 years, four years ahead of schedule.”
Going local Like the wind turbines, Capture the Sun is a distinctly local project that keeps control in the community and the economic benefits within the region. MPS self-financed the solar garden with a combination of subscriptions and funds shifted from its renewable system incentive program. “We didn’t have as many individual customers installing systems as we hoped,” explained Eisenbraun. “So instead of leaving that money on the table, we decided to use it to give our customers another option.” A very popular option, as it turned out.
MPS also chose Enterprise Sales Co. from nearby Valley City, North Dakota, to build the project. The website states that Enterprise is “more than a contractor,” but Eisenbraun was surprised to learn that the company builds solar arrays. “I was only familiar with them as grain bin builders,” he admitted. “But they came in with the best price and their project manager worked everything out to the finest detail.”
At Moorhead Public Service, bringing recognition to a local business, self-financing community renewables projects and giving customers what they want is not so much about innovation as it is about doing the right thing. “We didn’t build Capture the Sun because of any mandates,” Eisenbraun pointed out. “We did it because it was a great idea and our customers thought so, too.”
On the wide spectrum of utility policies that encourage customers to adopt renewable energy systems, Overton Power District 5 (OPD) is on the ambitious end of the spectrum.
Desert Southwest Energy Services Representative Audrey Colletti pointed out the strategy in OPD’s most recent integrated resource plan (IRP). “I look for customer goals and achievements in their IRPs and alternative reports,” explained Colletti.
“For example, one customer hasn’t increased rates in over five years, while another is thinking of decreasing rates. Some offer renewable power that is less expensive than fossil generation, but it is unusual for a small customer to make such an aggressive push to add more renewables.”
The Southern Nevada power provider is playing the long game with an eye on someday generating most of its own electricity through renewables. “But that day is a long way off,” acknowledged OPD General Manager Mendis Cooper. “Our current goal is to provide ways to help our customers.”
Keeping customers in mind Happily, the steps OPD is taking to increase renewables in its portfolio are also good for its 15,000, mostly residential customers. Its generous net-metering policy for small renewable systems is a notable step. Customers who install renewable generators that comply with OPD policies are eligible to receive a rebate of up to $2,500 for homeowners and up to $5,000 for large commercial industrial accounts. Since OPD implemented the policy, 49 net meters have been installed.
Increasing energy-efficiency programs is also part of OPD’s long-range plan that benefits customers in the near term. Thanks to a power contract, OPD will soon be stepping up its efforts to move customers to more efficient appliances and water and space heating systems. “We see natural gas as a reliability measure, but the savings will help to finance more customer efficiency measures, too,” Cooper explained.
Piecing together affordable sustainability Even with the high cost of tapping gas lines, low natural gas prices are a boon to OPD—for now. “In eight to 10 years, gas prices are likely to go up,” said Cooper. “The cost of renewable resources, which are getting more competitive all the time, won’t be rising.”
The transition to a sustainable power supply is challenging for a utility that must rely on other providers for both generation and transmission, as OPD does. Cooper would like to get more WAPA hydropower, but acknowledges that ongoing drought conditions make that unlikely. OPD now has 49 rooftop solar arrays on its system, but the utility is investigating the feasibility of and support for utility-scale development. “That is where our customers will really see the benefits of alternative energy,” the general manager observed.
OPD also offers customers rebates for wind turbines and ground-source heat pumps.
Using all tools OPD’s comprehensive long-range plan presents other opportunities—and identifies challenges—for load management as well. A scheme to install low-impedance transformers and implement power factor correction promises to increase systemwide efficiency.
With spillover growth from Las Vegas expected to add load over the next five years, OPD is working to encourage Clark County to adopt high-efficiency building standards. Programs to rebate measures such as weather stripping, relamping, heat pump systems and window replacement are being considered for existing buildings.
Another, nearly inexhaustible resource—an engaged and energy-savvy customer base—factors into OPD’s plans, too. The IRP highlights the utility’s use of social media to educate its customers about building technology, appliance energy use, efficient equipment and systems and no-cost common sense behaviors.
It will take every tool at OPD’s disposal to move its portfolio toward clean resources and self-generation. But that is what long-term planning is for, notes Cooper. “The IRP keeps our goals at the forefront where we can’t forget about them, and it reminds us every day of the issues we have to address.”
The publication offers information and tools for adopting and implementing shared renewables programs that benefit LMI individuals and households. Utilities, shared renewable energy developers, program administrators and others will gain insight into the unique challenges LMI consumers face to enjoying the benefits of shared renewables programs. Specific case studies examine lessons learned and highlight innovative tools and approaches. Stakeholders will find model rules to provide a strong starting point for discussion and potential implementation.
Low- to moderate-income households (those earning up to 120 percent of Area Median Income) represent approximately 60 percent of U.S. households. These consumers typically spend more of their income on energy costs than higher-income households, so they are in the greatest need of help with reducing their energy bills. Unfortunately, the people in these households often face considerable financial barriers to participating in programs that could help them. Problems like lack of access to capital or insufficient credit can prevent them from benefiting from conservation, energy-efficiency and renewable energy measures such as shared renewable projects.
These first-of-their-kind policy guidelines also consider that moderate-income customers may have different circumstances (such as higher credit scores or higher rates of ownership) than low-income customers. Instead of designing programs that approach all LMI customers as a group, programs that address the range of customers within the LMI category may be a more effective way to reach them.
The publication acknowledges that some barriers are due to policies unrelated to program design. IREC advises policymakers and others to be aware of these restrictions and take them into account when designing programs.
IREC has also produced a four-page quick reference guide to the full LMI report. The guide provides a summary of the key components of the guidelines and model provisions, along with references to the relevant sections in the main report.
Source: Interstate Renewable Energy Council, 3/10/16
Some people might say that renewable energy, like organic produce, is a luxury item better suited to larger utilities with customers who can support “fancy” products. Lincoln County Power District No. 1(LCPD) begs to differ and offers its successful community solar project as proof that even a small utility can fit renewable energy into its portfolio.
Located about four hours north of Las Vegas, Nevada, Lincoln County is almost entirely rural. With a staff of 15, the public power district serves about 1,000, mostly agricultural and residential, customers of modest income. Nevertheless, a 2013 customer survey LCPD conducted uncovered a lot of interest in renewable generation, solar power in general and community solar in particular. “The big sticking point for most of our customers was cost,” noted General Manager Dave Luttrell.
Offering affordable alternative One way to bring down the cost of installing a solar power system is to spread it among many customers in a community solar project, also called solar gardens. Community solar projects enable people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t own their own solar array to buy shares in a larger project. In the utility-sponsored model, customers may purchase a set amount of electricity at a fixed rate for a long term, such as 20 years. The rate is typically slightly higher than the current retail rate, but may provide protection and stability against rising rates for grid electricity.
In hopes of being able to offer its customers a renewable energy option, LCPD did an analysis of building a community solar project. “The pricing at the time just wasn’t feasible,” admitted Luttrell. “But we didn’t give up on the idea.”
Instead, Luttrell and the board of directors watched and waited and ran the analysis again one year later. The price of solar equipment dropped sharply in 2014 and, “The project began to look more competitive as an alternative to purchasing power on the spot market,” Luttrell said.
Little outside help, lot of DIY That is to say, more competitive, but not quite where it needed to be. Fortunately, there are state and federal programs to support renewable energy development available to utilities. LCPD worked with the Nevada Governor’s Energy Officeand the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program to get the funding needed to make the project feasible.
With funding lined up, LCPD took the do-it-yourself route for reasons that went beyond keeping costs under control. “Las Vegas is the nearest big city, so it would be tough to get a contractor to come all the way down here for a 90-kilowatt project,” Luttrell acknowledged.
The benefits of handling every aspect of development, from design to construction to marketing, soon became apparent to the utility. “Having a new challenge really motivated the staff,” recalled Luttrell. “They had built power lines and substations, but a solar array was something new.”
Far from being intimidated, the LCPD engineer and field crew discovered that installing solar is about as close to plug-and-play technology as you can get, Luttrell said. “And now they have the confidence to build more and the expertise to advise customers who want to build home systems,” he added.
Bringing community together The solar system also proved to be a great public relations tool for LCPD. It is located on US Highway 93 where people could see the construction progress once ground was broken in spring of 2015.
Everyone knew about the highly visible site, Luttrell noted, and asked LCPD employees about it when they ran into them at church or the grocery store. “It created a lot of goodwill in the community and gave us a chance to educate customers about solar power,” he said.
Starting a year or more before energizing the solar array, LCPD ran stories about the solar farm in every issue of their bi-monthly newsletter, Ruralite. The local newspaper gave plenty of coverage to the project and, as construction neared completion, the utility sent a direct mailer to its customers.
A series of public meetings gave customers a chance to learn what to expect from owning a share of community solar. “We wanted them to be fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the resource,” Luttrell said. “For example, LCPD is actually a winter-peaking utility, so maximum generation does not coincide with our customers’ highest energy use.”
Firing it up When the project was energized on July 1, LCPD had yet to sign up any subscribers for solar shares at that point for a reason. “We wanted it energized and generating on a real-time basis before we offered subscriptions,” Luttrell explained.
Customers started signing up for solar shares in September and continued through mid-October. Half of the array is fully subscribed, Luttrell said, and the rest of the generation goes into the utility’s resource portfolio. “We decided early on that the solar project should be an economical resource to benefit all our customers,” he pointed out.
Supporters turned out in force for the October 5 dedication of the community solar array. The USDA state director and a representative from the Governor’s Energy Office joined the LCPD board president, middle school students and other customers for the occasion. At the dedication shareholders got to tour the site and meet other attendees.
Everyone who is interested can follow the solar garden’s real time production through a Web portal.
More solar to come Customers who took the wait-and-see approach to the first project will soon have another chance to become community solar shareholders. LCPD hopes to break ground on Phase 2 in August, and again will offer half of the generation for subscription. “I think the first project met most of the pent-up demand,” said Luttrell, “but we wanted to have shares available for future interest.”
LCPD has had a customer-owned solar policy since 2007, and individuals can still install their own solar arrays if they want to. “We wanted to make it clear that we are not phasing out support for customer-owned solar,” Luttrell stated.
However, there have not been any new requests for interconnection since the community solar project energized. “Community solar just gives people one more option to decide what makes the most sense for them,” said Luttrell. “The economies of scale and not having to contend with operation and maintenance certainly make it attractive for a lot of customers who couldn’t consider solar otherwise.”
The most important thing for LCPD customers is that they have options. Whether they install their own solar, buy solar garden shares or just enjoy the stability that comes from a utility portfolio that includes renewables, they are getting big service from a small utility.