Community solar project expands VEA solar portfolio

A leader in solar water heating programs is now adding 15 megawatts of photovoltaic energy to its electricity supply. Valley Electric Association You are leaving (VEA) has constructed a 54,000-panel solar plant on 80 acres of desert near the California-Nevada border and plans to sell the power to members at a lower price than their current electric rates.

VEA's 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes.
VEA’s 54,000-panel solar plant produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. (Photo by Valley Electric Association)

The community solar project located just north of Pahrump, Nevada, VEA’s home town, produces enough electricity to power 2,500 homes. The goal of the plant, according to VEA CEO Thomas H. Husted, is to give members more choice of energy resources.

Members were showing interest in solar but weren’t able to install their own arrays, said Kristin Mettke, VEA executive vice president of Engineering and Compliance. “Also, there aren’t many large solar contracting companies in our service area,” she said. “This project was a good way to offer solar to our members at an economy of scale.”

VEA plans to turn the project into a subscription program. For now, however, the clean electricity is helping the co-op meet its growing demand with a low-cost resource.

Partnering to protect wildlife
Even projects intended to save money—and the environment—come with complications, however, and the community solar project was no different. The chosen site was home to sensitive plants and the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise, so accommodations had to be made.

VEA and solar contractor Bombard Renewable Energy worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a habitat conservation plan to minimize the disturbing effects of construction “It gave us the opportunity to try different approaches,” observed Mettke.

Measures included relocating tortoises to a temporary habitat before beginning construction and installing temporary fencing and tortoise-proof access gates to prevent them from returning. The completed project had a permanent security fence with tortoise access points to allow the animals to reenter the site.

To provide habitat for the tortoises, the native vegetation was mowed, crushed or trimmed, rather than removed. Increasing the height and spacing of the PV panels and installing them to follow the natural undulations of the land will also allow the vegetation to recover more quickly after construction.

Solar water heater pioneer
The community solar project continues VEA’s tradition of using solar solutions to provide members with affordable power. In 2009, the co-op launched what was, at the time, the largest solar hot water program in the country.

For around $30 per month paid on-bill, members can install a Rheem solar water heating system. This highly efficient technology uses the sun’s heat to reduce the need for conventional hot water heating by as much as two-thirds. Members can save about $250 to $540 in annually and enjoy 50-100 percent greater hot water capacity.

With 835 systems installed to date, the program avoids more than 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually while building local workforce skills. VEA estimates that solar water heating will save members about $34 million over the next 20 years by decreasing peak power demands and delaying future upgrades to capital infrastructure.

Planning next steps
Now that the solar project is completed, VEA has begun to talk with battery vendors about adding backup storage. “A battery system would complement solar power and help with resource adequacy and shoulder times,” said Mettke.

The co-op is also developing a subscription program that would allow members to lease panels. The program would be introduced through VEA Ambassadors, members who take an active interest in the day-to-day operations of their utility and who offer feedback on VEA initiatives, activities and policies from a consumer perspective. The Ambassadors were instrumental in rolling out VEA’s solar hot water program in 2009.

The solar hot water program and now the utility-scale community solar project have given VEA valuable hands-on experience developing and integrating renewable generation. That expertise may someday come in handy for developing cost-effective clean energy projects for California. The co-op became the first out-of-state utility to join the California Independent System Operator balancing authority in 2013, a move that could present such opportunities to VEA. It would be a challenge, but if it strengthens member relations and builds local workforce skills, Valley Electric Association is up to it.

Solar water heating builds Nevada co-op’s renewable portfolio

(Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the December 2012 issue of Energy Services Bulletin.)

Valley Electric Association You are leaving (VEA) in Pahrump, Nev., is emerging as a leader in the next big trend in demand-side management (DSM) by doing a very old-fashioned thing—listening to its members.

Valley Electric Association CEO Tom Husted accepts a $5,000 check from Nevada State Energy Office Director Stacey Crowley. The state funds will help offset the slightly higher cost of upgrading homes from propane to solar water heating.

“Our members wanted renewable energy, and solar water heating was the most cost-effective way to add renewables to our portfolio,” explained VEA Marketing Manager Tom Polikalas.

Since the co-op launched its innovative, “no money down, zero percent interest” loan program three years ago, 680 VEA members have installed solar water heaters (SWH) in their homes. Homeowners make the monthly loan payment on their systems with the savings over using either electricity or propane to heat water. The program is a saver for VEA, too, with the systems installed to date now shaving an estimated 340 kilowatts (kW) from the co-op’s peak load.

Members drive pilot
Polikalas attributes the program’s genesis—and its success—to VEA’s strong relationship with its members. The co-op has an Ambassador Program that boasts more than 200 members. The group works directly with the staff on policies, procedures and programs; enlists member support in shaping policy; and learns how legislation affects the utility and its members. Polikalas, a public power veteran, observed, “I don’t think I’ve seen a membership group this active at other places I’ve worked. It is definitely not something a big investor-owned utility could replicate.”

Yet, initially, VEA’s size, non-profit status and low rates seemed to be a barrier to developing the large renewable energy projects that interested members. The Ambassadors brainstormed ideas with the VEA board, and determined that solar water heating was the renewable technology with the most potential to benefit both members and the co-op.

An 18-month pilot program VEA initiated in 2006, with Cooperative Research Network You are leaving and 40 participants from the Ambassadors, confirmed that belief. Monitoring SWHs with TWACS (two-way automatic communications system) and Btu (British thermal unit) meters, the study found that each unit reduced coincident peak demand by .5 kW. Installing 1,000 units could shave half a megawatt (MW) off of VEA’s peak.

Homeowners fared well, too, seeing an average 11-percent reduction in their annual electric bill. The system provided 85 percent of their hot water needs, and families using more than 60 gallons daily saved even more money. Those numbers looked good enough that 61 percent of the members who responded to VEA’s   survey about SWHs said they would want a unit within six months. It was time to put together the program.

Assembling the pieces
The Ambassadors’ Conservation Renewable Energy Committee (CREC) played a central role in designing the program, researching business models, equipment and manufacturers, and presenting recommendations to VEA’s board.

Rheem, You are leaving a Minnesota-based manufacturer of high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment, was chosen to provide the active solar systems. The program offers a choice of four models—a 65-gallon unit for manufactured homes and three models for site-built homes ranging from 80 to 120 gallons.

Loan financing is coming from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation. You are leaving Rural electric utilities formed the financial cooperative in 1969 to raise funds from capital markets to supplement the utilities’ loan programs. “CFC is an extremely valuable resource.  As a co-op, it shares VEA’s values of delivering outstanding service to its members at the lowest possible cost.” Polikalas said.

Homeowners make their loan payments through on-bill financing for energy services. “This is VEA’s first foray into on-bill financing, but utilities across the country are offering it more and more as a way to encourage and support deeper energy-efficiency improvements,” noted Polikalas.

VEA retains the renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset its operating cost. The value of the RECs improves the economics of the program for the co-op itself. Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission You are leaving (PUC) administers the REC market, which was established as part of Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard

Choose contractors wisely
Encouragement and support notwithstanding, a utility energy-efficiency program needs qualified installers if it is to succeed. VEA CEO Tom Husted took on the task of selecting a general contractor. “The choice can make or break a program, so finding a committed, highly qualified general contractor is absolutely worth the time and attention of a utility’s senior managers,” noted Husted.

That is no overstatement, given that the general contractor functions as the member’s point of contact for the program. Providing the installation estimate, hiring all subcontractors, ensuring that certification and permitting requirements are met, assisting with system design and invoicing VEA are all part of the general contractor’s responsibilities.

The general contractor hires local plumbers who employ certified solar water installers—of which there weren’t many in Pahrump prior to the program. VEA and Great Basin Community College You are leaving teamed up to change that with a training and certification program. So far, 11 trainees have graduated, and VEA estimates that its SWH program could create 40 to 60 jobs over the next 20 years. “Every single job is important to our community now. Part of a co-op’s mission is local economic development, and we are proud that this program is creating jobs,” said Polikalas.

Big and getting bigger
Jobs are just part of the picture—VEA estimates that the 680 SWHs installed so far eliminate more than 2,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually. The program has kept hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, payroll and tax revenue in the local economy, and drawn the praise of state and Federal officials, and even Ed Begley Jr.!

State agencies in particular have taken notice. The Nevada PUC asked the co-op to organize a workshop in October. Utility professionals came from as far away as Maryland to learn more about creating a domestic solar water-heating program. VEA is already planning another workshop for next fall.

By that time, even more members will be saving money with SWHs, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the State of Nevada Office of Energy. You are leaving The funding is specifically for replacing propane water heaters, and should help VEA reach its goal of installing 1,000 residential solar units. “Propane is a little more expensive to convert than conventional electric,” Polikalas explained.

Either way, members, the community, the environment and Valley Electric Association win with solar hot water heaters, and the co-op is more than willing to share what it has learned. Obviously, VEA’s model isn’t going to work for every utility, but it shows that size doesn’t have to stand in the way of developing clean energy. With a little creativity and a lot of member support, even small co-ops and municipalities can become renewable energy leaders.

Utilities that can’t make it to Pahrump, Nev., or can’t wait to learn more about residential and commercial solar hot water programs, should check out Department of Energy’s Utility Solar Water Heating Initiative.

Nevada Co-op’s Solar Water Success Heats Up Interest

Valley Electric Association Redirecting to a non-government site (VEA), an electric cooperative based in Pahrump, Nev., hosted an Oct. 8 workshop to highlight the history, economics and impacts associated with its nationally-recognized domestic solar water heating program. The event was organized in response to an information request from the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.

“We’re pleased to share information that can help Nevada and our nation save energy and money,” explained Thomas H. Husted, VEA’s Chief Executive Officer.  “Co-ops work for the sustainable economic development of their communities, and solar water heating offers many communities across the country an effective way to improve both the economy and the environment.”

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study estimated that solar water heating could potentially save Americans more than $8 billion a year in energy costs.

The co-op’s innovative “no money down, zero percent interest” loan program has enabled 680 VEA members to install solar water heating systems in their homes.  The systems save money, whether homeowners previously used electricity or propane to heat water. The homeowner uses the savings to make the monthly loan payment on the solar water heating system.

In his presentation to workshop attendees, VEA’s Chief Operating Officer Rick Eckert explained how the program reduces the co-op’s expenditures on expensive peak power, saves co-op members an average of $243 a year, and helps create local jobs, among other benefits.

The program’s genesis was from the co-op’s members, with many of VEA’s volunteer “Ambassadors” participating in the pilot phase of the effort before the full program was launched in the fall of 2009.

VEA plans to host another domestic solar water heating workshop in the fall of 2013.  Contact Valley Electric Association for dates and more information about future VEA workshops on solar or other energy technologies. Source: Valley Electric Association, 10/10/12