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.