The small towns of Nebraska boast a surprising number of large commercial and industrial customers, drawn in no small part by some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. Ensuring the economic vitality of these businesses—and their communities—is a duty that NMPP Energy and its member organizations take very seriously. “If the businesses are healthy, then the utilities are healthy and we all win,” said Bob Meade, former member services representative for Nebraska Municipal Power Pool and Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska.
Meade, who retired in March, has a long history of working with municipal utilities in Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming to help large C&I customers keep their operating costs down. Low rates notwithstanding, Meade’s first contact with a business usually comes when one complains to the local municipal utility about high bills. “Either that, or they have an infrastructure request,” he said. “They want to upgrade their heating and cooling systems or outdated lighting.”
Meade frequently used the opportunity to do an energy audit on the facility. Businesses need the audit to apply for the Rural Energy for America Program from the Department of Agriculture to fund energy efficiency upgrades.
REAP grants provide up to 25 percent of total eligible project costs for improvements such as HVAC, lighting, refrigeration units and insulation. “Those are the most popular improvements for grocery and convenience stores in particular,” observed Meade. “Those upgrades can reduce a store’s energy charges by as much as 60 or 70 percent. The savings pay for the improvements, and in six or seven years the business sees that money go back into the bottom line.”
Bigger they are, more they save
Large—as in multi-national—companies have even more to gain from efficiency upgrades. Becton Dickinson Inc., in Meade’s hometown of Holdrege, Nebraska, manufactures medical supplies such as insulin syringes to send all over the world. “Because they use robotics, the voltage and current levels have to be almost perfect,” said Meade. “Otherwise, they lose product.”
All products must be sterilized in an underground chamber, too, so a reliable, stable power supply is critical to operations. These circumstances make Becton Dickinson a good candidate for battery storage. NPPD is working with the company to evaluate the benefits and savings of installing a storage system.
Another, better known, large C&I customer is Frito-Lay in the town of Cozad. The snack food maker has a significant presence throughout the state due to excellent rail service and, of course, proximity to crops used as ingredients.
Meade recalled performing a detailed infrared inspection of an electrical room at the plant a few years ago, using one of WAPA’s IR cameras. “We identified more than 85 potential outages that could have caused downtime,” he noted. “That proactive inspection saved them a huge amount of lost work and product. It also convinced them to get their own camera and perform regular inspections.”
Saving electricity saves jobs
Sometimes, good C&I customer service can help to retain jobs when a business changes hands. When Bass Pro Shop took over Cabela’s sporting goods stores in Nebraska, the city of Sidney expected to lose hundreds of jobs. However, Bass Pro Shop learned that Cabela’s had a much more sophisticated data collection program, so the company decided to relocate its data operations to the Cabela’s campus.
That plan hit a snag when Bass Pro Shop found low voltage in the selected building, and an engineering report failed to determine the cause. At the request of the Sidney public services director, Meade installed a power analyzer—again from WAPA—on the city’s transformer. The data the analyzer collects will help to correct the problem, and Bass Pro Shop may be able to offset some of Cabela’s layoffs with jobs in the data center.
Tools to build cooperation
Diagnostic tools, borrowed from WAPA, were critical in helping NMPP utilities to resolve electricity issues for both Frito-Lays and Bass Pro Shop. “IR cameras and power analyzers are great for dealing with key accounts,” Meade pointed out. “You are able to walk in and do something proactive for your customers instead of waiting to react to their problems.”
What is even better, he added, is when a member utility or customer decides to buy the tool themselves. Prices for diagnostic technologies keep coming down, and once a customer sees how much they can save doing preventative maintenance, the case is made.
But first, you have to show them, said Meade. “We have a slogan at NMPP Energy, ‘Working together works,’ and it’s true,” he declared. “It works when we get our member utilities to work with their customers and it works when NMPP works with WAPA.”
Richard Eymann is stepping into Bob Meade’s shoes at the end of March to continue NMPP Energy’s tradition of outstanding member services. With 40 years of electrical and maintenance experience, Eymann will be providing the same high level of support and training NMPP Energy communities have come to expect. Members can contact Eymann at 402-474-4759.
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
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 Office and 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.
Having information available about future operating costs, supplies and regulations help business owners make sound decisions for the coming months and years. Utilities that provide such critical information form stronger relationships with their customers, which is why High West Energy hosted an irrigation workshop on Jan. 27 at its Pine Bluff, Wyoming, headquarters.
Irrigators are among the electric cooperative’s biggest consumers and High West considers it good practice to acknowledge that customer segment and keep the lines of communication open. “We like to get irrigators together every couple of years to share new technology developments and discuss changes on the horizon to help them prepare accordingly,” said High West Public Relations and Marketing Manager Lorrell Walter.
Around 25 attendees—primarily small growers but with a significant number of agribusiness producers—turned out for a look into the crystal ball. “They got a lot of tough news this year,” acknowledged Walter, “but they appreciate knowing ahead of time, so they can plan for it.”
The tough news included rate increases anticipated for the next three years, water restrictions affecting both Wyoming and Nebraska and a low futures market. “Basically, the worst possible combination,” said High West Energy Management Advisor Joy Manning, who helped organize the workshop.
Facing, tackling challenges
Some presentations clarified the situation the growers faced, while others explored assistance available to help cope with it. Speakers from the South Platte Natural Resources District and Wyoming State Engineer’s Office focused on drought conditions and new state well water regulations. The outlook for grain markets in 2016 was the topic of a presentation by a representative from Platte Valley Bank.
The workshop covered not only challenges, but solutions too. Attendees learned about strategies for dealing with climate variability and integrating photovoltaics with irrigation equipment from the University of Wyoming School of Engineering and Extension. The Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program discussed loans and grants it offers for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements.
Utilities join conversation
Because water and energy use are intertwined, wholesale power providers had a place on the agenda, too. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association was on hand to update attendees on the G&T’s efforts to comply with the Clean Power Program and other activities. Tri-State Relationship Manager Gary Myers gave an overview of the 2016 Energy Efficiency Products Program.
Western Energy Services Representative Annette Meredith and Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann gave a short presentation on what Western is doing to support High West and its other customers. Although Western works with utilities rather than end-users, Energy Services can play a role in consumer education, noted Meredith. “Helping our customers’ customers to understand where some of their power comes from, and how electricity and water are so closely linked in the West, can help bolster efficiency programs,” she explained.
The workshop appeared to achieve that goal, observed Manning, in spite of sobering news. “The feedback was very positive,” she said. “They particularly appreciated that the information didn’t just touch on one aspect of irrigation.”
Partnering to reach customers
Getting input from many different sources is the secret to a good workshop, Walter said. “If I was going to give other utilities one piece of advice on putting together a workshop, I would tell them, ‘Don’t try to do it on your own,’” she said. “Even though I have an agricultural background, I couldn’t keep up with the hot topics.”
As the issues get more complex, pre-event research becomes more important. High West board members are a source of topics based on the concerns they hear from customers. Tri-State, High West’s wholesale provider, has helped organize past workshops. And if you find a good speaker, Walter advises, “Invite them back! Get that information out there.”
Meredith, who joined Energy Services a little over a year ago, also pitched in this time. “She really helped pull things together,” Manning added.
“Partnerships among several stakeholders are key for successful energy efficiency efforts,” said Meredith.
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 and Federated Rural Electric Association 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.”
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.
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., 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 and the Rural Electricity Resource Council 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 , 10/23/15
The June 30 deadline is approaching for the final round of grants and guaranteed loan financing from the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
REAP funding helps agricultural producers and rural small businesses purchase and install renewable energy systems or make energy efficiency improvements. Western customers are among the electric cooperatives, communities and businesses that have benefited from the program.
Making difference in Midwest
Agricultural communities in the Midwest face many economic challenges in spite of the region generally enjoying low-cost power. Since the program’s inception in 2002, REAP has contributed to the economic health of this part of the country by helping farmers and small businesses reduce operating expenses. Rural electric cooperatives have used REAP funding to diversify their resource portfolios.
Nobles Cooperative Electric in Worthington, Minnesota, was an early REAP recipient. When the state legislature began considering a statewide renewable electricity standard, the co-op applied for a grant to install a utility-scale wind turbine in its territory. In addition to the $500,000 REAP grant, Nobels received $2.5 million through Clean Renewable Energy Bonds from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC) to fund renewable energy projects. General Manager Richard Burud noted that the CFC and USDA assistance made the difference between doing the project and not doing the project.
Increasing irrigation efficiency
In the dry western farming region of all-public power Nebraska, growers rely on irrigation systems that use great quantities of both water and energy. Many irrigation systems are powered by diesel engines, which have high carbon emissions and expose farmers to volatile fuel costs. Nebraska Public Power District, one of the state’s largest electric providers , teamed up with USDA Rural Development staff in 2004 to help more than 200 farmers receive REAP (then called Section 9006) grants to replace diesel or propane-fueled irrigation motors with electric motors.
Close cooperation was critical to the program’s success. Rural Development did extensive outreach to growers, focusing on irrigation projects, while NPPD staff conducted the energy assessments needed to apply for the grants. “We continue to support REAP projects by doing energy audits for applicants,” explained NPPD Energy Efficiency Consultant Ron Rose. “Audits performed by a certified energy manager earn more points for the applicant in the USDA scoring process.”
The farmers did their part too, working through the application process to receive grants that averaged around $7,000 per system. “The grants don’t pay for the whole project, but they lower the payback period considerably,” acknowledged Rose.
Given the fuel prices at the time, farmers were able to save as much as 30 percent of their irrigation energy costs by converting from diesel to electric. Rose noted that even though fuel prices have dropped, the electric pumping systems are still popular because remote management technology works better with electric equipment. “The farmers are able to control irrigation from their smart phones or tablets,” he said.
Helping customers helps utility
The REAP project stabilized energy cost for the applicants, gave them greater control over their systems and has encouraged some growers to move to solar powered pumps. Investing in energy efficiency can increase the income for a farm or business, and buying and installing new equipment creates economic activity in the community.
An economically healthier community is always good for a public-power utility. More directly, moving some of its larger customers from fossil fuel to electric power adds to NPPD’s customer base. Other REAP projects, such as solar grain dryers and building envelope upgrades for small businesses, promise future benefits for peak load control while keeping the local economy strong.
Rose urges customers to contact their local USDA Rural Development offices to get their applications as soon as possible. Power providers may help support applications by providing energy audits. Also, keep in mind that REAP is a grant rather than a rebate, advises Rose. “Complete the application before you start the project.”
More than 180 agricultural producers and rural small businesses in Western’s 15-state territory received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help them reduce their energy use.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Aug. 17 the awarding of funds through USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) totaling more than $11.6 million and covering all 50 states. “These investments enable our farmers, ranchers and rural small business owners to develop renewable energy systems and make energy-efficiency improvements that will save them thousands of dollars in energy costs each year,” said Vilsack.
Award funding is contingent on the recipient meeting the conditions of the grant agreement. Grants can finance up to 25 percent of a project’s cost, not to exceed $500,000 for renewables or $250,000 for efficiency. Eligible projects include energy-saving equipment, systems or improvements, energy audits and renewable energy development assistance. Applicants must be project owners located in a rural area, and the project must be technically feasible. An example is the Simpsons Brothers Greenhouses in Ovid, Mich., which received an $18,000 grant to make energy-efficiency improvements, such as installing greenhouse energy curtains designed to reduce energy consumption by 42 percent.
State, tribal or local government agencies; higher education institutions; rural electric cooperatives or public power utilities are eligible to apply for REAP grants. Utilities may also bring the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy into their communities and strengthen customer relations by helping consumers apply. Farmers, ranchers and small business owners may need energy audits or other types of technical assistance to improve their chances of receiving funding.
If your utility assisted a customer with applying for a REAP grant, share your experience with Energy Services. If you would like more information on the Rural Energy for America Program, contact your Rural Development state program office. Download the list of this year’s REAP awardees to see what kind of projects are receiving funding.