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 (CIPCO) built the state’s largest photovoltaic (PV) project across five sites in its service delivery territory.
The member cooperatives involved in the project are Clarke Electric Cooperative, Consumers Energy, Eastern Iowa Light & Power Cooperative, East-Central Iowa REC and Pella Cooperative Electric. 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.
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 (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 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.
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.