Iowa Coop Offers Smart Strategy to Reach Clean Energy Future

Iowa Coop Offers Smart Strategy to Reach Clean Energy Future

Solar Panel Fields

Yesterday, a grand opening was held to celebrate Iowa’s largest solar farm. The 2,900-panel, four-acre facility in Kalona is almost triple the size of the state’s second largest solar farm.

But what really makes this facility unique is that it is the product of the innovative and forward thinking of one of the state’s smallest electric cooperatives. The leaders of Farmers Electric Cooperative made a decision a few years ago to eventually meet much of its customers power needs with a clean, economically viable alternative – solar energy.

Contracting the services of Eagle Point Solar to develop and build the facility, Farmers Electric set about making its vision a reality by adhering to a smart, well-thought-out business approach that will now put online a facility that is poised to make it the country’s leading utility in the amount of solar energy produced per capita, at more than 1800 watts per customer. The project will also help the utility reach its goal of securing 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

And Farmer Electric’s approach is one that can serve as a model for other power cooperatives to provide a source of electricity that is not only cleaner than those powered by traditional fossil fuels, but can also be a boost to the local economy.

Warren McKenna, CEO and general manager at Farmers Electric, offers a straightforward strategy for getting a solar project up and running.

1. Survey your membership and find motivated members to help

2. Make the case to your cooperative board of directors that distributed generation such as solar and wind can be a viable energy source, creating an inside-out generation model vs an outside-in central station model.

3. Create a vision – that is, define your target ‑ with 3 focus areas or groups of goals, using a performance-driven model (figuring in factors like reliability, loss reduction and high load factor).

4. Start out with smaller experimental project and or break it into several parts. Be prepared to scale up.

5. Determine a location that is near a three-phase line, substation, or larger loads with good access.

6. Consider funding through several avenues, including leasing options, purchase power agreements, funding from membership, local funding and outside funding. Avoid “gold-plating” by prospective developers by keeping your request for a proposal (RFP) realistic.

7. Analyze the project’s capabilities fully, using a long-term (20 years plus) perspective. How will this fit into our power mix? How do we justify it? Realistically assess the value of solar or wind.

8. Work with your local planning and zoning officials, we as well as state government agencies (the Department of Natural Resource, for example) on permitting, zoning, storm water discharge and archeological considerations.

9. Scrutinize your contractor thoroughly. In-house or general-contractor managed and sub-contractors. Hire local electrical, grading, surveying, engineering and financial consultants, and a good attorney.

10. SAFETY! Make sure this is a priority from day one, McKenna says.

The approach taken by Farmers Electric is one that can be applied virtually anywhere in the country. And it will lead to a boost to the cooperative’s bottom line.

In addition to heading the Farmers Electric effort, McKenna serves on the 25 x’25 Energy for Economic Growth Initiative providing leadership in helping other cooperatives develop new business models and communications outreach programs to expand the number of distributed renewable energy projects nationwide.

McKenna and other Farmers Electric leaders say a major factor shaping their renewable efforts in Iowa is, like many places across the country, the difficulty of getting new coal or new nuclear plants permitted, much less built. Energy generation capacity needs are projected to increase 30 percent over the next 20 years. The options for holding member kilowatt-per-hour costs down favors more locally generated renewable energy.

Prior to the construction of the solar farm, Farmers Electric has promoted renewable energy through incentive rate structures that allow its members who have their own solar or wind facilities to take advantage of federal and state tax credits. The coop also decided to meter each installation separately, a move that enables it to set the rate Farmers pays these renewable energy generators now and into the future.

Over time, Farmers Electric has refined its rates and with the online startup of the new solar farm, has made remarkable progress down the renewable energy growth path. The 25x’25 Alliance invites other cooperatives to look into this innovative way of meeting future power needs. The alliance stands ready to partner with other rural electric cooperatives and share the tools available to create a new, clean, economic energy future.

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