CIPCO builds Iowa’s largest utility-scale solar project

In Iowa, where renewable energy is often synonymous with wind, one generation-and-transmission (G&T) cooperative is making a big investment in utility-scale solar generation. Over the last year, Central Iowa Power Cooperative You are leaving WAPA.gov. (CIPCO) built the state’s largest photovoltaic (PV) project across five sites in its service delivery territory.

The completed Urbana Solar Acres development from a drone's-eye view.
The completed Urbana Solar Acres development from a drone’s-eye view. (Photo by Central Iowa Power Cooperative)

The member cooperatives involved in the project are Clarke Electric Cooperative, You are leaving WAPA.gov.Consumers Energy, You are leaving WAPA.gov. Eastern Iowa Light & Power Cooperative, You are leaving WAPA.gov. East-Central Iowa REC You are leaving WAPA.gov. and Pella Cooperative Electric. You are leaving WAPA.gov. The 5.5-megawatt (MW) project will provide electricity to all CIPCO members of all income levels. “It is our mission as a cooperative to support all our members equally,” noted Communications and Public Affairs Manager Kerry Koonce. “Choosing the utility-scale model for the project rather than community solar accomplishes that.”

Becoming solar leader
In late 2015, CIPCO issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the development of the first of what is intended to be a two-phase utility-scale solar project.

Construction workers install solar racks at the Urbana Solar Acres on East-Central Iowa REC’s site.
Construction workers install solar racks at Urbana Solar Acres on East-Central Iowa REC’s site. (Photo by Central Iowa Power Cooperative)

Several of CIPCO’s 13 members showed interest in hosting a site. Then followed the hard work of determining which sites would be appropriate. “Some potential sites didn’t have sufficient resources, others had leasing issues,” recalled Koonce. “It is so important to make sure to get the correct layout, especially with a first-time project.”

CIPCO had help from the National Renewables Cooperative You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NRCO), a trade group formed by cooperatives to facilitate the development and deployment of renewable energy resources. NRCO managed the RFP process and supplied engineering expertise for the project. CIPCO has used NRCO resources in the past to review wind-purchase contracts as well.

To install the arrays, CIPCO selected Azimuth Energy LLC You are leaving WAPA.gov. of St. Louis, Missouri, an engineering, construction and development-support service company for renewable energy and energy efficient projects. The design of the ground-mounted arrays included features like fixed-axis racking and transformerless string inverters to reduce installation cost, improve performance and simplify maintenance. The projects were completed on schedule by the end of 2016.

Sun keeps rising
The new solar generation is part of a portfolio that includes 199 MW of wind power, 14 MW of WAPA hydropower and 1.6 MW of waste-to-energy generation. In all, CIPCO gets nearly 60 percent of its power supply from low-carbon resources. Koonce observed that clean energy has always been important to CIPCO’s members and with the decline in solar panel prices, the time was right to add solar to the mix.

Consumers Energy representatives celebrate the opening of the Marshalltown Gateway Centre solar array..
Consumers Energy representatives celebrate the opening of the Marshalltown Gateway Centre solar array. (Photo by Central Iowa Power Cooperative)

According to Koonce, the solar site will eventually pay for itself in the energy it produces, although the exact payback period is not known. The $9 million cost of all five solar sites, spread over 20 years to take advantage of some federal solar tax credits, is significantly less than the cost of building a new coal-fired plant, she added.

CIPCO’s overall resource plan focuses on natural gas, wind and more solar, with a second phase of solar development planned for this year. Battery storage is not part of the conversation at this point, Koonce noted, because the cost of storage systems is still very high compared to CIPCO’s stable rates. For now, “Our members won’t be seeing an increase due to adding solar,” Koonce says. “The resource is very cost effective for us.”

But members can be sure that CIPCO will be watching battery storage and other new technologies, as the G&T continues to build its diverse, affordable and environmentally friendly power supply.

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