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
A solar electricity storage project in Kalispell, Montana, combines three things at which electric cooperatives excel: testing new technology to see if it is a good fit for members, helping members lower their electric bills and forming partnerships in the community.
Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) recently selected the Flathead Youth Home to test rooftop solar panels and a Tesla Powerwall battery storage system. The 7.2-kilowatt, net-metered solar array and backup system will save on average about $44 per month on the home’s electric bills while the co-op collects and evaluates performance data on it.
The battery backup sets this solar installation apart from FEC’s Solar Utility Network (SUN) community solar project and the 38 residential arrays on its system. Energy Services Representative David Bopp is expecting the youth home project to provide deeper insights into the technology. “There is a large potential market for batteries in the future, so we hope to get ahead of it by testing it in its infancy,” he said. “We want to gather data now before people start putting them in and coming to us asking, ‘What can I get?’”
A committee of utility employees came together to guide the pilot project and provide input on future projects from different perspectives. “The transformative technology committee includes representatives from business technology, member services, GIS, regulatory affairs, public relations and rate design, so they all have a different perspective to offer,” said Bopp. “It formed around the solar project, but we would like to keep it together to evaluate other technologies as they come up.”
The committee initially considered an employee’s house when it began discussing the project, because the goal was to see how the system worked in a residential setting. But when the time came to site the project, they decided to choose a local charity with a similar electricity-use profile, noting that they could gather data for their purposes and benefit a nonprofit at the same time.
Finding the right charity—and in a hurry—posed something of a challenge to FEC. “It was late in the development process, so we didn’t have time to put it in our newsletter,” Bopp recalled. “We used social media to ask our customers for recommendations, called a nonprofit development group and United Way and brainstormed internally.”
One consideration was that many residential charities have confidentiality and safety concerns, and FEC wanted a partner that could participate in marketing and public outreach efforts. The charity would have to be comfortable with allowing FEC personnel access to the system and with the data being publicized at conferences. The Flathead Youth Home, which provides short- and long-term services to youth, is well established in Kalispell and promotes its work to the public, so it was a good candidate. “Luckily, the home happens to be in a part of town where people can see it, too,” Bopp added.
From a technical standpoint, the 10-bedroom facility and administrative office had the right electricity profile. “We needed a minimum use so that the system would not be putting too much electricity back onto the grid,” said Bopp.
Built in 2009, the home had good southern exposure and was relatively new so it didn’t need structural or efficiency upgrades. If the building owners were going to make any energy efficiency improvements in the near future, that would have to be factored into the electricity use data. “We wanted a steady load,” Bopp explained. “The home could qualify for a lighting upgrade rebate but that isn’t going to be a big enough change to affect the data.”
The system was installed in December, but winter put a hold on completing the wiring for the solar interconnection. The battery’s capability is being tested while final connections wait for winter’s end. Bopp expects to fire up the system fully and start collecting data this spring. The Flathead Youth Home will own the system after 10 years and until then the director will give tours on behalf of the co-op.
Diversifying technologies, energy supply
One of the central goals of the pilot is to discover if solar coupled with battery storage has ancillary benefits for both customers and FEC. The technology committee suspects that system might be useful in helping to manage peak load. The project will test that assumption and help the utility answer questions about rates, incentives and control going forward. “By testing batteries in their infancy, we can figure out how to use them while making sure we are fair to all our members,” said Bopp.
The utility battery storage pilot project is the first in Montana, just as FEC’s SUN program was the state’s first community solar project. Electricity rates are so low in the region that renewable generators often have a discouragingly long payback period. However, renewable energy is still attractive to customers who have environmental concerns, are interested in energy independence or have remote loads to power.
FEC supports these customers with a net-metering policy, and by acquiring diversified resources. In addition to the residential solar arrays, there are four small wind turbines on its system. The utility owns a 1.5-megawatt landfill gas-to-energy facility and has purchase power agreements for electricity from a small hydropower generator and a biomass facility.
12 -2 p.m. Mountain Time
Utilities, solar companies and software developers working on solar energy grid integration solutions will welcome a May 2 funding opportunity announcement (FOA) from the Department of Energy. The DOE program called Enabling Extreme Real-Time Grid Integration of Solar Energy, or ENERGISE, announced that it is making $25 million available for research to modernize the national grid.
The amount of solar power installed in the U.S. has increased 23-fold in the last seven years, from 1.2 gigawatts in 2008 to an estimated 27.4 gigawatts in 2015, with one million systems now in operation. A key challenge to furthering solar deployment is the ability to integrate distributed generation sources like rooftop solar panels into the grid while balancing that generation with traditional utility generation. This FOA aims to support companies working to meet that challenge while keeping reliable and cost-effective power flowing.
ENERGISE specifically seeks to develop software and hardware platforms for utility distribution system planning and operations that integrate sensing, communication and data analytics. These hardware and software solutions will help utilities manage solar and other distributed energy resources on the grid and will be data-driven, easily scaled-up from prototypes and capable of real-time monitoring and control.
Funds are being offered for projects addressing two topic areas:
- Topic Area 1 covers near-term projects to develop commercially ready, scalable distribution system planning and real-time grid operation solutions compatible with existing grid infrastructure to enable the addition of solar at 50 percent of the peak distribution load by 2020. A one-year field demonstration with utility partners is required.
- Topic Area 2 covers projects that tackle the long-term challenge of developing transformative and highly scalable technologies compatible with advanced grid infrastructure to enable solar at 100 percent of the peak distribution load by 2030. DOE will require a large-scale simulation to demonstrate performance and scalability.
DOE’s SunShot Initiative will oversee the projects funded by this opportunity. The program expects to make 10 to 15 awards altogether. Awards for Topic Area 1 will likely range between $500,000 and $4,000,000 each. For Topic Area 2, DOE anticipates making awards of between $500,000 and $2,000,000 each.
The Solar Energy Technologies Office is hosting an informational webinar on May 19, 12 to 2 p.m. Mountain Time. All applicants must submit a brief concept paper by June 17. Full applications are due by Aug. 26, 2016.
See the Energy Department news release.
Source: DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 5/2/16
The words “renewable energy” and “South Dakota” usually call up images of wind turbines rather than solar panels, and rightly so—the state has almost 900 megawatts (MW) of installed wind capacity, compared to less than 300 kilowatts (kW) of solar. Under those circumstances, you might expect South Dakota consumers and utilities both to have a lot of questions about solar power. Sioux Valley Energy is taking the do-it-yourself approach to finding answers by installing a small solar array on one of its facilities.
The 24-kW array on the Brandon, South Dakota, service center consists of 80 panels, aimed in three different directions to determine which configurations work best during peak energy use times. In addition to siting, Sioux Valley is also collecting data on selecting equipment, cost benefit and installation.
Carrie Law, the cooperative’s director of Communications and Government Relations, explained, “Our members want to know more about distributed generation and how solar panels perform in our climate. We wanted our employees to get experience with the systems, too,” she added. “In the long run, that experience is likely to be worth more than the small amount of power the system generates.”
Well-rounded solar education
The demonstration project became something of a crash course in solar for Sioux Valley employees. A committee drawn from customer electrical services, customer service, accounting and engineering was involved at every step, from surveying members about their interest in solar to designing and installing the array. “The board asked us basically to throw everything solar on the table,” said Reggie Gassman, manager of Customer Electrical Services.
Installation turned out to be one of the easier parts of the project, noted Law. “Panels are designed now so that it is not that difficult to put them up,” she said. “From a safety standpoint, though, it is always good to work with qualified technicians. We want our members to know that their utility can provide that expertise now.”
All fired up
The array began generating power in May, with the south and southwest panels being the high performers. “That was pretty much to be expected,” said Law. “It will change come fall and winter. We will need to collect a lot more data before we are ready to draw any conclusions about performance,” she added.
If members are interested in learning how solar performs in the local climate, the utility wants to know more about how it performs in relation to peak demand. Once a winter-peaking utility, Sioux Valley now faces the challenge of a diverse load that includes agriculture customers, data centers and a growing residential territory. East River Electric Power Cooperative, one of Sioux Valley’s wholesale power suppliers, connected the array to a SCADA system. “That should give us some good information on peak offset,” observed Gassman.
Now that the solar array is up and generating, members are taking a wait-and-see approach. That is not surprising, given that the survey the employee committee conducted last fall showed that people wanted more data to help them make informed decisions. “We already knew that our members are very interested in solar power, and that came out in the survey,” Gassman noted, “but so did their concern about costs and payback. That is why we chose the demonstration route.”
In the meantime, members can see the solar system when they drive by the service center, which is located on a main road between Brandon and Sioux Falls. Managers from other co-ops have toured the facility, and Gassman recently gave a presentation on the project to the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League conservation group.
Members can also follow the array’s output from an online dashboard that displays the kilowatt-hours generated each day and a monthly comparison. “We have been urging members to use the website, and one recently came up to me on a camping trip to tell me that he is monitoring the project,” said Law.
Next step for renewables
The data Sioux Valley is collecting will help the co-op determine how solar fits into its overall mix and what direction a member program might take. Gassman thinks it may take several years for solar to really catch on in South Dakota. “We have such affordable rates right now that renewable energy doesn’t really pencil out for most people. But the survey indicated that members believe renewables should play a part in Sioux Valley’s future portfolio,” he acknowledged.
The co-op’s portfolio already includes about 15 member-owned solar systems, hydropower, waste heat recovery, a small amount of biogas from manure digesters and wind. Most of the wind comes from generation-and-transmission co-ops East River and Basin Electric Power Cooperative .
Future regulation, new technology, changes in the economy and environmental concerns are likely to factor into shaping Sioux Valley’s energy mix, as well. The one thing utilities can count on today is that tomorrow will be different. Fortunately, with a board, staff and members who are willing to learn something new, Sioux Valley Energy will be prepared for whatever comes next.