Community Solar gets enthusiastic reception in Fremont, Neb.

Sometimes, you just don’t know what people want until you ask them, as the municipal utilities board of directors in Fremont, Nebraska, You are leaving learned when they set out to diversify their municipal power portfolio.

The residents of Fremont, Nebraska, enthusiastically embraced community solar. The 1.5-megawatt solar farm was fully subscribed in only seven weeks.
The 1.5-megawatt Fremont Community Solar Farm unleashed a pent-up demand for renewable energy options, selling out subscriptions in just seven weeks. (Photo by Fremont Utilities)

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.

So Newton took the prudent step of consulting experts before rushing headlong into a project. After scoring a Department of Energy Technical Assistance Grant, the city teamed up with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Smart Electric Power Alliance You are leaving to gauge customer interest in renewables and to explore financing options.

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.

Roseville customers get solar advice they can trust

Recognizing customer needs in the growing residential solar market, Roseville Electric Utility You are leaving has developed a program to help homeowners make sound decisions about installing solar systems and, in the process, is increasing customer satisfaction.Got solar questions? I've got answers. Connect with your Trusted Solar Advisor today at

Solar installers are now marketing more aggressively to consumers who are definitely interested but want to be better informed before investing in a system. This creates an opening for utilities to become trusted energy advisors, said Alanya Schofield, a senior director at consulting firm E Source.

Schofield made her remarks at the American Public Power Association’s You are leaving Public Power Forward summit in November and participated in a panel that included Roseville Electric Utility Director Michelle Bertolino. Public Power Forward is an APPA strategic initiative to help public power utilities prepare for a new era in electricity.

Seeing, meeting need
California passed a law in 2015 requiring utilities to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030, increased from the previous goal of 33 percent by 2020. Many public power utilities in the state, however, have been proactively encouraging clean power and energy efficiency for years. Roseville Electric Utility’s Trusted Solar Advisor program is just the latest among many examples.

Roseville Electric Utility launched the program in April 2014, in response to the growing number of customers calling with questions about installing solar arrays. A promotional campaign and workshops followed to introduce the website to customers.

Educating first
The website provides a starting point for customers who are trying to figure out if solar is right for them. A solar calculator—the WattPlan created by Clean Power Research You are leaving —allows customers to make cost-benefit comparisons based on electricity use, generation, financing options and system size.

Visitors will also find frequently asked questions and information about rebates Roseville offers for solar installation. The Trusted Solar Advisor stresses the importance of doing efficiency upgrades first, and links to a DIY Home Energy Analyzer. You are leaving

Install when ready
Once a customer decides to go forward with a solar installation, the permitting process begins. Roseville customers can download the residential PV packet and find links to residential and business installation and interconnection forms.

Rather than maintain an approved contractor list, the utility provides helpful resources. The website includes links to Go Solar California, You are leaving sponsored by the California Energy Commission, and the Contractor State Licensing Board You are leaving so that customers can ensure their contractors have a valid license.

Staying neutral and staying current are the keys to gaining customer trust, noted Energy Program Technician David Dominguez. “We focus on making sure we give our customers the most relevant and up-to-date information,” he said. “That allows them to come to their own conclusions.”

Dominguez, who handles the utility’s retrofit solar interconnections, is the Trusted Solar Advisor and he was answering customers’ solar questions before Roseville created the program. Some customers just feel more comfortable talking to a representative, or they may still have questions after visiting the website, Dominguez acknowledged. “But now, with the website, when people call, they often have a much better idea of what they need to know.”

Source: Public Power Daily, 11/29/16

DOE offers funding to pilot tribal technical assistance

Deadline: April 14, 2016

Update: Slides from the March I informational webinar are available online. Download to learn about eligibility requirements and essential details of the application process.

Up to $7 million in funding is available to Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages to develop a Technical Assistance Energy Providers Network. This pilot project by the Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy is intended to train regional energy experts to provide the tribes with technical energy assistance and informational resources.

As part of these inter-tribal regional programs, the energy experts would:

  1. Coordinate energy solutions among participating Indian tribes (including Alaska Native villages) within the region;
  2. Deliver technical assistance to participating tribes within the region;
  3. Build the human capacity of participating tribes by providing information to tribal leaders and staff through workshops or webinars;
  4. Serve as an information clearinghouse for participating Indian tribes;
  5. Network with regional and national energy organizations;
  6. Advise DOE’s Office of Indian Energy on the energy goals and needs within their region; and
  7. Enhance DOE’s technical assistance network across Indian Country.

Applications are due April 14, 2016, and must be submitted through EERE Exchange, DOE’s online application portal.

Source: DOE Office of Indian Energy, 2/15/16

Energy Experts hotline, website discontinued

As part of an effort to serve our customers more effectively, Western has discontinued the Energy Experts hotline and website.  Our Energy Services website still provides plenty of technical assistance resources and information on integrated resource planning, along with a direct connection to your Western regional representative.

Watch for new tools and calculators to help you plan your load management programs and consumer energy programs. We welcome suggestions from customers who have found online tools that proved useful in their planning efforts.

We are still here to answer your questions about energy-efficiency measures, new technologies and customer service programs. Contact Western’s Energy Services program manager at 720-962-7419, and please don’t hesitate to share other ideas and feedback about how Energy Services can best support your utility.

Webinar series answers tribes’ questions about renewable energy projects

One of the most important things we do at Western—after providing low-cost federal hydropower to public power utilities—is to help our customers manage their resources in a rapidly changing world. Now in its fourth year, the Tribal Renewable Energy Webinar Series is helping Native American tribes to gain a clear picture of a complex industry and build business relationships needed to develop the renewable resources on their lands.

Western has partnered with the Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs to present tribal members and stakeholders with valuable, practical knowledge about renewable energy technologies, markets and policies. Since 2011, the series has covered every aspect of project development, from resource and site evaluation to transmission access and interconnection to power marketing. The current series, Knowledge to Energy: The Path to Projects, builds on the material presented in the previous years to focus on best practices, case studies, regulatory issues and business and financing models.

Successful outreach
This cost-effective approach to technical assistance has reached thousands of Native American representatives and interested stakeholders. More than 3,500 tribal members participated in the 2014 series alone, and 2015 is off to a promising start, said Western Renewable Energy Program Manager and Webinar Series Chair Randy Manion. “We’ve received many notes of thanks and appreciation already for the first two webinars,” he commented. “We spend several months planning these series to ensure topics are on target, timely and useful in moving renewable projects forward on tribal lands.”

The January webinar, Best Practices in Developing a Tribal Strategic Energy Plan, had particular significance to a tribal representative located in Western’s Upper Great Plains Region. “He told me afterward that the tribe is developing a strategic energy plan, and the webinar made him realize the importance of community input in planning,” recalled Manion. “Those positive feedbacks happen after each webinar, and they are confirmations that we are on the right track with our topics and speakers.”

Manion explained that during the last four years, the question-and-answer sessions during the webinar and feedback afterward have helped the planning committee to hone in on what interests the tribes. Recruiting speakers, while still a formidable task, is getting easier as the series gains recognition for its high quality. “More tribal leaders and staff are joining the experts on the agenda,” he said. “We see an uptick in audience interaction and interest when the participants have a chance to talk to peers about their experiences developing projects.”

The growing number of tribes with their own experience is another indication of the success of the webinar series. “Getting tribal members to participate as presenters for the webinars has been a priority for the series this year,” Manion acknowledged.

The series has helped tribes to better understand what they need to reach full or partial energy self-sufficiency—a high priority on tribal lands—and to keep that momentum going during changes in tribal councils and leadership positions. “We are also bridging awareness within the energy industry of what tribes are doing successfully, who they are and how to work with them,” added Manion.

Like many outreach programs intended to help customers, the Tribal Webinar Series has been good for the sponsoring agencies as well. Western’s Power Marketing representatives have observed that what tribes learn from the webinars about renewable energy issues increases their understanding of hydropower marketing and transmission issues.

More than talk—action!
The benefits of the webinar series extend beyond better communication about energy development to an increase in requests for technical assistance from the federal sponsors. Western has conducted several pre-feasibility transmission studies in support of potential renewable energy projects on tribal lands. These studies help tribes determine the probable size, interconnection and feasibility of proposed renewable projects, and also assist in the search for financing and potential buyers for the generation.

“Our technical assistance to Native American Tribes is not limited to pre-feasibility transmission studies and webinars,” Manion said. “With the funding Western receives from the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, we are open to considering other requests.”

For example, Western has conducted four prefeasibility studies for tribal utility formation. Two of the tribes are now independently moving forward to the next level of analysis. Also, the Energy Management and Marketing Office in Western’s Desert Southwest Region is conducting a market assessment to remove barriers and identify opportunities for tribal renewable energy projects that could interconnect with the ED5-Palo Verde Hub Transmission Project, funded by the Transmission Infrastructure Program.

Tribes interested in receiving technical assistance need to complete a simple TA form on the DOE Office of Indian Energy and Policy Program website. If DOE believes that Western can complete the request, it is forwarded to Manion who coordinates appropriate colleagues in an internal review to determine if it is suitable for Western to act on the request. In some cases, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or another federal entity may be better equipped to handle the request. DOE, NREL and Western staff confer extensively with the requesting tribe before making the decision as to whether the request is a good fit for the agencies.

Native American tribes are poised to play a greater role in meeting the nation’s need for low-carbon, home-grown energy resources. At the same time, developing renewable energy projects is a way for tribes to grow their local economy and improve the quality of life in Indian Country. Western and the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs are pleased to provide technical assistance such as the Tribal Renewable Energy Webinar Series to move tribes closer to these goals.

The Tribal Renewable Energy Webinar Series is usually scheduled for the last Wednesday of each month, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mountain Time. There is no cost to attend, but you must register in advance. Presentations and audio files from past webinars can be found in the Renewable Energy Program webinar library.

Energy Department to Help Tribes Advance Clean Energy Projects and Increase Resiliency

As part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to help tribal communities nationwide enhance their energy security and build a sustainable energy future, the U.S. Department of Energy today announced the third round of Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Renewable Energy Project Development Assistance, which provides federally recognized tribal governments and other tribal entities with on-the-ground support to accelerate clean energy project deployment. Read more.

Applications are due to the DOE Office of Indian Energy by May 1, 2015. Up to five projects will be selected by late June 2015. Technical assistance will be provided from July 2015 through August 2016.

Source: Department of Energy, 2/25/15

TriState members get crash course in residential energy auditing

Following a long day in the classroom, workshop attendees discuss their experience with audit tools available from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. (Left to right: Instructor Jim Herritage; Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann; Tim Grablander, Cherry-Todd Electric; Andy Molt, Y-W Electric; and Alantha Garrison, Gunnison County Electric.)
Following a long day in the classroom, workshop attendees discuss their experience with audit tools available from Western’s Equipment Loan Program. (Left to right: Instructor Jim Herritage; Western Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann; Tim Grablander, Cherry-Todd Electric; Andy Molt, Y-W Electric; and Alantha Garrison, Gunnison County Electric.)

A home energy audit can do many things for a utility, from soothing an upset customer to reducing overall demand. To help its members realize the full range of benefits from their audit programs, TriState Generation and Transmission Association You are leaving Western's site. recently hosted a free two-and-a-half-day workshop on residential energy audits.

The intensive workshop offered a thorough overview of the many factors that affect residential energy consumption. Attendees also learned how to calculate energy savings from typical efficiency upgrades, so important for helping consumers decide how to spend their home improvement dollars.

The crowd of more than 30 participants included TriState’s five relationship managers and representatives from Western, all of whom joined in the class work. “I think we may have set some kind of attendance record,” observed instructor Jim Herritage of Energy Auditors Inc., You are leaving Western's site. the energy services company that presented the training.

What members need
Most of the attendees were member services representatives, key account managers or energy management specialists. Some utilities have a long-established home auditing program, while others were just thinking about starting one. Experienced energy auditors from utilities such as Mountain Parks Electric Inc. You are leaving Western's site. and United Power You are leaving Western's site. came to brush up on their knowledge. “This is a really affordable way to get my CEUs [continuing education units],” said Rob Taylor, a key accounts manager for Mountain Parks. “You could take this class three or four times and still learn something.”

Many in the class, however, were attending their first training on the complexities of the home audit. Donna Venable of Continental Divide Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. in Grants, New Mexico, was among those who had been doing audits only a short time. “We are starting an audit program because rates are going up and customers are complaining,” she stated. “Customers are also getting a lot smarter about energy and asking tougher questions.”

TriState Relationship Manager Gary Myers explained that the class was intended primarily to help member systems with less auditing experience. “I was getting a lot of calls from members about energy audits,” he said. “TriState has five relationship managers for 44 members in 200,000 square miles of territory. As much as we would like to, we can’t always provide technical assistance in person.”

A more practical approach was to bring co-op member services staff to one place to learn the basics of home energy auditing. “If we all learn the same concepts, steps and formulas, we can all speak the same language,” said Myers. “Our members may still call with questions, but it will be a lot easier for us to answer them.”

Curriculum evolves
Even a “basic” walk-through energy audit has many components and a laundry list of interrelated aspects the auditor must keep in mind.

The college-level class covered fuel characteristics, efficiency terms, heat behavior, the thermal envelope, types of insulation, caulking and weather-stripping, water heating, ventilation and energy-related math. To begin, each participant received a workbook and, most importantly, an Energy FactMonster, a laminated “cheat sheet” with terms, basic values and formulas.

The workbook contained a home energy audit checklist that Herritage said changes with each class. As the class went through each item, participants did, in fact, speak up with suggestions to add to the list. Member Services Director Andy Molt of Akron, Colorado-based Y-W Electric Association, You are leaving Western's site. introduced the term, “family living dynamics,” that was promptly added to the class lexicon, as well. “It describes how situations like having a new baby or an aging parent in the home might change the way a family uses energy,” he explained.

Hard, fast rules
Herritage said that he learns from every class and that the syllabus keeps evolving, but certain principles remain the same.

Energy auditors must always remember that their business is to empower customers to understand their own energy use. And that understanding can only be gained by approaching the building as a whole system, rather than focusing on the parts separately.

Herritage recommended that participants begin every service call by asking themselves three questions:

  1. Is there a problem?
  2. What is the nature of the problem?
  3. How do I fix it?

Get to the bottom of these questions, and chances are you will have a satisfied consumer. Just as important, your consumer will be likely to have a better understanding of his energy use.

When customers decide to make an improvement or repair, the best way to get the expected results is to hire technicians who have been certified by North American Technician Excellence You are leaving Western's site.. Too often, Herritage explained, on-the-job training is handed from technician to technician, and may date back decades. “Today’s high-efficiency systems must be maintained by people who studied the technology, not just each other,” he said.

Everyone benefits
At the end of the training, participants took a test and received a diploma, but the real takeaways were the intensive study, lively discussions and a clearer understanding of the audit process.

Joy Manning of High West Energy and Nancy Andrews show off their diplomas for completing Residential Energy Auditing, v.5.01.
Joy Manning of High West Energy and Nancy Andrews show off their diplomas for completing Residential Energy Auditing, v.5.01.

Participants with no auditing background discovered a new set of tools. Customer Service Representative Alice Morrison, one of six employees Sangre De Cristo Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. sent to the workshop, was surprised at how much the class covered. “A lot the material was over my head, but I’m learning so much,” she admitted. “Now when customers call, I’ll have a whole new frame of reference to deal with their questions.”

Susan Kroll, who has built a strong residential audit program for Intermountain Rural Electric Association, You are leaving Western's site. called the workshop the best auditor training she has attended. “It was good to hear that other auditors have the same concerns as I do. Learning more about the science behind steps we go through automatically will make it easier to explain our recommendations to the customer,” she added.

Tim Grablander, general manager of Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative You are leaving Western's site. in South Dakota, hopes to use home energy audits to make positive connections with residential customers. “Too often, we only see low-income consumers when they come in to pay a bill to get the electricity back on,” he acknowledged. “We would much rather help them lower their bills and keep the electricity on in the first place.”

Cherry-Todd is a member system of Basin Electric Cooperative, You are leaving Western's site. which cosponsored the workshop and plans to host one in its territory next fall. Myers considers basic audit training a good investment for wholesale power suppliers. “This workshop is helping TriState extend its workforce to better serve our consumers,” he declared.

Wealth of resources available to tribes

DOE’s Tribal Energy Program offers many publications and programs to help Indian tribes develop clean energy and energy efficiency resources:

  • Renewable Energy Development in Indian Country: A Handbook for Tribes is an accessible reference for those who are new to energy project development or seek a refresher on key development issues as they navigate the project development process. Developed by Douglas MacCourt of Ater Wynne LLP for the Tribal Energy Program, the handbook supports tribal leaders, tribal economic and energy enterprises with overviews of the renewable energy project development process, discussion on how to protect tribal interests and exploration of financing options.
  • The recently updated Renewable Energy Development on Tribal Lands brochure provides an overview of the program, including mission and purpose, 129 funded tribal energy projects, renewable energy resource information, education and training, technical assistance, and information resources. Download a copy on the Tribal Energy Program website.
  • Technical assistance and services offered by the Division of Energy and Mineral Development (DEMD) in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. DEMD provides technical assistance and scientific information to help tribes and allottees maximize their resource potential from oil and gas, renewable energy, or mineral resources.
  • Technical assistance to tribal EECBG recipients—DOE’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) will be undertaking some new initiatives to provide technical assistance to Tribal Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant recipients.  Learn more about TAP for tribal EECBG recipients.
  • More technical assistance opportunities are available to assist Federally-recognized Indian tribes, bands, nations or other organized groups and communities with renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. It may include renewable energy technology information, renewable resource information, energy efficiency techniques, project support, system performance modeling, policy information, design review, special studies, strategic energy planning and training. Download the technical assistance request form, fill it out, and forward it to the Tribal Energy Program.
  • Student internships are available to current college upper-classmen and graduate students for summer 2011 internships. Students must be U.S. citizens and Native Americans with specific interest in renewable energy. Applications are due Feb. 18, 2011. Download the application, or learn more the internship program, and see comments of past interns and their papers.