Tribal solar farm breaks new ground for Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation, WAPA’s largest tribal customer, is about to join the ranks of utility-scale renewable energy producers with the construction of a 27.5-megawatt (MW) solar farm at Kayenta, Arizona.

Residents of surrounding communities, tribal leaders and officials from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kayenta Solar Farm near WAPA's Kayenta Substation in Arizona.

Residents of surrounding communities, tribal leaders and officials from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kayenta Solar Farm near WAPA’s Kayenta Substation in Arizona. (Photo by Travis Weger, WAPA Public Affairs specialist)

WAPA Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel and Chief Public Affairs Officer Teresa Plant attended the groundbreaking ceremony on the Navajo Nation, April 23. Also joining the ceremony were residents of surrounding communities, tribal leaders and officials from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, You are leaving WAPA.gov. the primary power provider for the tribe.

The new facility, the largest Native-owned renewable project in the country, is expected to be operational by spring 2017. “We are excited to show that the Navajo Nation can develop an energy project on this scale,” said Deenise Becenti, NTUA spokesperson.

Many reasons to build
In addition to valuable experience, the solar farm will also provide power to a northern section of the Navajo Nation at some of the “lowest consumer electric rates in the region,” according to an NTUA press release. This is significant because of all the Native households in the U.S. that do not have electric power, 75 percent are in the Navajo Nation.

Other benefits of the project include promoting grid modernization and economic development. Construction will require about 100 workers, and there are expected to be five permanent jobs managing the facility. “It may not sound like much,” Becenti acknowledged, “but on the average, each employed tribe member helps to support eight others.”

She added that some people who have left the area to find jobs will be able to return home.

Partnering to reach goals
NTUA has taken the lead on developing the $64 million project, working out an agreement with Salt River Project You are leaving WAPA.gov. for the energy credits. SRP’s purchase of two years’ worth of energy and environmental attributes from the Kayenta Solar Farm is helping to fund its construction. The project is also receiving tax credits and loans, mainly from the Cooperative Finance Corporation, You are leaving WAPA.gov. a finance cooperative run by a network of electric cooperatives.

The purchase of the attributes will help SRP meet its goal of getting 20 percent of its retail energy requirements from sustainable resources by 2020. The Arizona-based public power provider contracted in 2012 to buy renewable energy certificates from solar arrays NTUA rents to low-income customers who do not have access to electricity. NTUA also sells SRP the credits from small solar installations on some utility facilities.

Bringing a large-scale renewable energy project to the Navajo Nation has been a long-time goal of the tribal utility, said NTUA General Manager Walter Hasse in a recent interview. “It is an important next step in the development of a green economy for the Navajo Nation,” he stated.

WAPA pitches in
The solar farm will be connecting to the larger grid through WAPA’s Kayenta Substation. WAPA has a long-standing relationship with NTUA, and has cooperated with the 55-year-old tribal utility on past projects.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Gabriel said, “We hope to continue building this kind of mutually beneficial partnership well into the future, especially with our Native American customers. Changes in the electric industry are occurring rapidly and WAPA stands ready to continue providing technical assistance in power marketing, resource management and transmission services for the Navajo Nation.”

Source: WAPA Closed Circuit, June 2016

USDA releases funding for rural economic development

Electric cooperatives should take advantage of $500 million the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set aside for projects that support economic and community development plans across multi-jurisdictional areas.

Electrical co-ops can be part of the planning process that secures grants and loans for rural businesses and community facilities through USDA's Strategic Economic and Community Development program.

Electrical co-ops can be part of the planning process that secures grants and loans for rural businesses and community facilities through USDA’s Strategic Economic and Community Development program.

The Strategic Economic and Community Development program (SECD) is the first new funding available from the USDA in a long time. The USDA put the provision into the 2014 Farm Bill with an eye on advancing projects that support long-term community and economic growth strategies and capitalize on the unique strengths of the rural area. The four Rural Development programs under the SECD program include Community Facilities, Water and Environmental Programs, Rural Business Development Grants and Business and Industry Guaranteed Loans.

Because co-op service territories often cover multiple towns, cities and counties, there’s an opportunity for power providers to work with councils of governments, regional authorities, coalitions of municipalities and similar associations. Co-ops should reach out to these entities to make sure their priorities are part of regionally adopted plans.

USDA will base consideration on:

  1. How well the project supports a multijurisdictional plan
  2. How well the plan addresses collaboration, regionalism and investments from other federal and philanthropic agencies

Interested participants should have their plans reviewed by their state’s staff early in the process for feedback and possible modification before submitting it with the formal application.

The National Association of Development Organizations presented an informational webinar on Jan. 12 covering an overview of the SECD program and how to apply for funding. A recording of the webinar You are leaving WAPA.gov. and the full slide presentation are available to download.

Applications are due June 30, 2016. Contact your local USDA Rural Development office or contact Farah Ahmad in the national office for more information.

Source: Electric Co-op Today You are leaving WAPA.gov. via Green Power News, 3/7/16 

Minnesota co-ops put USDA loans, grants to work for members

The challenge of funding maintenance and improvements on electrical infrastructure is simply a fact of life for cooperatives, but one that the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utility Service (RUS) seeks to make easier. Direct loans and loan guarantees from the RUS Electrical Program help electric utilities like Nobles Cooperative Electric You are leaving Western's site. and Federated Rural Electric Association You are leaving Western's site. in southwest Minnesota repair and modernize their grids.

The two Western customers were among the latest recipients of nearly $2.3 billion in loans to build and improve rural electric infrastructure. Nobles Cooperative Electric is receiving a loan of $10,903,000, while Federated Rural Electric will receive a $6,364,000 loan. Part of the loan is being used to acquire territory from investor-owned Alliant Energy, said Rick Burud, general manager for both utilities. “Each cooperative will gain about 1,700 new members,” he noted. “We will use the rest of the funding to repair storm damage on our existing system and improving services on the acquired territory.”

Go-to resource
Rural electric utilities have long relied on RUS loans to supplement their maintenance budgets and fund special projects, and Nobles and Federated are no exception. The co-ops apply every four years after doing a four-year construction work plan to determine their infrastructure needs. “The loans mainly fund work on our distribution system,” Burud said. “We do everything to from new line construction, purchase automatic meter reading infrastructure to funding new substations.”

The application process does take some patience, Burud acknowledged, but the co-ops are able to complete it in-house. Utilities must provide a financial forecast in addition to the four-year work plan. “The regional USDA representative does a lot of work, too, to ensure everything is in order,” he added.

To help automate the process, USDA has created an online application intake system. Users can create an application, upload attachments, sign certifications and draw service areas, to name a few features that can be accessed any time of the day or night.

Supporting economic development
A strong local economy is just as important to the health of a community as a strong, modern grid, and USDA offers funding opportunities for that type of project, too. Federated REA has built an award-winning economic development program on the tools USDA offers to rural utilities.

A big check tops off Federated’s efforts to secure AGCO’s $740,000 economic development loan. Pictured: Eric Fisher, AGCO, director of operations; Colleen Landkamer, USDA Rural Development, state director; and Richard Burud, Federated, general manager.

A big check tops off Federated’s efforts to secure AGCO’s $740,000 economic development loan. Pictured: Eric Fisher, AGCO, director of operations; Colleen Landkamer, USDA Rural Development, state director; and Richard Burud, Federated, general manager. (Photo by Federated Rural Electric Association)

Over the last 25 years, the utility has leveraged more than $3.6 million in USDA grants and loans, along with Federated economic development loans, to retain or create more than 1,500 jobs. Projects have ranged from expanding an insurance claim center to installing a wind turbine to building an ethanol plant. Several co-op members have applied for and received grants from the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) for facility improvements such as grain dryers and ground-source heat pumps. Communities can access a revolving loan fund Federated established in 2008, even for smaller investments such as purchasing a fire truck or building a meeting hall and garage.

“Applicants must be co-op members, but our program also helps members on municipal lines in our territory,” explained Marketing and Communications Manager Andrea Christoffer. “One of the criteria for a loan from the revolving fund is that the project helps the economy of our cooperative’s service area.”

AGCO Corp., You are leaving Western's site. a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment, is not on Federated’s electric system but the company’s employees and customers are. In 2011, the utility helped the company obtain a USDA revolving loan to expand its Jackson, Minnesota, facility and bring a tractor assembly line to town from overseas. The project retained 850 jobs in the area, added more than 200, increased school enrollment and stimulated the local economy. The National Rural Electric Association You are leaving Western's site. and the Rural Electricity Resource Council You are leaving Western's site. both recognized Federated with awards for community investment.

Get started with USDA
Applying for USDA funding is not that difficult, insisted Christoffer, who used to fill out grant applications for members in the early years of the economic development program.   The Federal Register Notices clearly list the required information, she pointed out. “All applicants have to do is answer the questions. And they can contact their state energy coordinator if they need help,” she said, echoing Burud.

Member services representatives and other rural co-op staff can find more assistance on the USDA Rural Development website. Most utilities are aware of programs and services for utilities, but a refresher tour can uncover new opportunities.

For economic development opportunities, check out programs and services for businesses. Several programs, such as REAP, are related to energy use, but loans and grants are available for many other types of business investments, as well. Members of rural electric cooperatives can always give their power providers a call to help them apply for the programs.

Utilities might want to familiarize themselves with programs to fund community and individual projects, too. As Nobles Cooperative and Federated REA know, what is good for the community is good for the utility that serves the community.

Source: USDA Rural Development via Energy Central You are leaving Western's site. , 10/23/15

A look ahead: APPA Customer Connections offers economic development training

Utilities support the economic health of their communities by providing reliable power at affordable rates, but they will discover they have much more to offer at the Customer Connections Conference You are leaving Western's site. Oct. 18-21 in Austin, Texas.

The American Public Power Association (APPA) has put together a full track of economic development sessions for not only utility professionals, but local officials and city staff, board members and regional economic development and marketing specialists, too. All are encouraged to attend the event at the APPA member rate.

Improve key account service
A roundtable session will kick off the economic development track on Monday morning, Oct. 19. Key account and economic development professionals will come together to discuss the best practices for working together toward common goals. Participants will learn how to identify roles and actions, as well as how to collaborate on projects to attract and retain businesses.

Customers Speak is an afternoon panel that brings the large customer into the mix. Representatives from Whole Foods, Samsung Austin Semiconductor and other Austin-based key accounts will talk about what they expect from utilities and what drives customer satisfaction and decisions on location and expansion.

Bring business to town
Strategies for making your community stand out as a business-friendly environment are the focus of two more sessions. Retail Recruitment: Tips and Strategies for Building Stronger Communities looks at proven techniques to recruit and retain retailers and foster local entrepreneurship.

Finding creative solutions and new opportunities in environmental regulations is the topic of Using Sustainability as an Economic Development Tool. Hear from utilities that turned energy efficiency and sustainable innovation into drivers for economic growth.

Set sites high
Location may still be king, but it does not have to be your community’s destiny. On Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, participants will learn from experts how to identify and market to the right sectors, and discover what selectors really want in a site. The session Using Analytics and Visualization to Create Economic Development Opportunities will provide tools for evaluating the assets in your service territory and focusing your economic development efforts.

Later that afternoon, Site Selection Panel: Business Trends 2015 delves deeper into the trends and location priorities currently driving economic development activity in a number of industry sectors. A panel of site locators will talk about what they’re looking for when they visit your community, meet with local leaders and go through the incentives and negotiations process.

Do it right
The final two panels look at best practices in economic development. Successful Economic Development from a Statewide Perspective explores the programs and policies that make Texas one of the best states for business. Economic development representatives from Texas talk about business recruitment and expansion, incentives to expand and cultivate industry clusters and creation of a unified and proactive approach to economic development.

The track raps up Wednesday, Oct. 21 with Utility Economic Development Best Practices: Roundtable Discussion. After hearing about a national survey on the topic and reviewing utility case studies on successful economic development projects, strategies and practices, attendees will have the chance to share their experiences. There will also be a discussion on how utilities measure the value of economic development efforts and how to articulate success.

Public power professionals involved in economic development, key accounts, energy services, marketing, public communications and customer service can contact APPA at 202-467-2921 to learn more about this educational and networking event. The International Economic Development Council You are leaving Western's site. recognizes the Customer Connections Conference as a professional development event and offers continuing education credits to attendees.

South Sioux City, Nebraska, dreams big, achieves much

Move over, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. There is another, different kind of economic capital on the map. Located on the northeastern Nebraska-Iowa border, South Sioux City, Nebraska, is doing big things.

That is what former Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman called the Western customer in an address to the city. Upper Great Plains Customer Service Representative Tracy Thorne is also impressed. “This is an incredibly innovative community for one of its size,” he observed.

Although the city is Nebraska’s 14th largest, South Sioux City has a modest population of 13,353 citizens. Its municipal utility provides electricity, water, sewer and fiber optics services to 4,500 meters. “Our fiber optic network is 15 years old, and we have 99.9 percent penetration,” stated City Administrator Lance Hedquist proudly.

South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch kicks off the groundbreaking ceremony for a new methane digester that will turn food processing waste into natural gas. (Photo by South Sioux City)

South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch kicks off the groundbreaking ceremony for a new methane digester that will turn food processing waste into natural gas. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Sustainability creates jobs
South Sioux City also boasts higher employment than the state average, thanks in part to an active manufacturing sector that includes a thriving food processing industry.  The waste stream from turning soy, oats, corn, dairy and meat into value-added products is what brought Big Ox Energy to town. The waste recycling provider is building a $40 million methane digester to convert industrial food waste into renewable gas. “Manufacturers used to have to pay to have byproducts removed from the waste before sending it to the regional sewage treatment plant,” Hedquist said. “The digester will help the industry reduce its waste treatment and disposal costs.”

When the digester is completed later this year, it will add 30 permanent jobs to the local economy, and that is only the beginning of the benefits. Big Ox is planning for more digesters in the area to meet the strong demand for renewable digester gas from businesses that use it to meet environmental goals and mandates. Having a sustainable waste management system in place will also make South Sioux City attractive to other food processing companies.

Kevin Bradley, business development director of Big Ox Energy, and his assistants begin construction on the methane digester. When completed, the unit will add 30 jobs to the local economy and reduce waste treatment costs for local food processing businesses. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Kevin Bradley, business development director of Big Ox Energy, begins construction on the methane digester with help from friends. When completed, the unit will add 30 jobs to the local economy and reduce waste treatment costs for local food processing businesses. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Demonstrating leadership
The anaerobic digester project is only the latest coup for a city that is proving that small towns can be environmental leaders. Hedquist attributes the city’s forward-looking attitude to enlightened mayors and city council members. “When they go to conferences to learn about best practices, they have to come back with ideas,” the city administrator explained, “and they do!”

Among the ideas that the city has implemented are an all-electric city car fleet, Nebraska’s first paperless city council and an eco-bike path made entirely of recycled material. Those last two projects earned South Sioux City an award from the National Recycling Coalition.

Recently, the city undertook a “campground electrification” project, leveraging funds from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture. The new electric generator uses wood waste from industry and untreated, ground wood from city cleanups to light up the city-owned campground. “It’s a small unit that we can expand as needed,” commented Hedquist.

Perhaps most impressive, South Sioux City has paid off its property tax debt, meaning that infrastructure improvements are pay-as-you-go, noted Hedquist. “That’s practically unheard of,” he added.

The South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce (red coats) teams up with the Sioux City Chamber (green coats) to support local businesses like the family-owned Express Laundry Center.

Rob and Amanda Beller and son Max cut the ribbon on the Express Laundry Center. When the South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce (red coats) team up with the Sioux City Chamber (green coats), local, family-owned businesses win. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Secret is partnership
One way South Sioux City has been able to stay property tax debt-free is to partner with other municipalities and agencies on projects that meet mutual goals. The city Parks and Recreation Department worked with South Sioux City Community Schools to create an arboretum along the extensive local trail system. The South Sioux City Community Development Agency, South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce, Dakota County and the school board collaborated  with the city on redeveloping the riverfront area along the Missouri River with a drive-in movie wall and a stage for concerts and dancing.

Being a member of the Siouxland Economic Development Corporation, which covers a ten-county area in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, facilitates inter-local agreements with neighboring towns. Collaborations have resulted in tax revenue-sharing plans from economic development efforts and a project to build more electric vehicle charging stations in the tristate area.

Interconnecting the public water system to the Dakota County Rural water system—a first for Nebraska—ensures that South Sioux City residents have a redundant water supply in case anything happens to the local water supply. “Always have a backup plan,” said Hedquist. “That’s the secret to success.”

Keeping citizens happy
That philosophy extends to new energy resources as well. This month, South Sioux City is accepting bids on the purchase of wind power and proposals for a 3- to 4-megawatt solar installation. “I don’t see how this can’t be a way to reduce costs,” Hedquist said.

Hedging fuel costs with renewable energy makes good sense, which may be the true secret behind South Sioux City’s success. Behind all the big dreams is careful planning, long-term thinking and an effort to make sure that nothing goes to waste, including the trust of residents. “The community knows we listen to them every step of the way,” Hedquist acknowledged. “They have seen the results and they like them.”