From Wisconsin to Colorado to Arkansas, energy media in the United States have been carrying stories about rural energy co-ops and municipal utilities turning to solar to meet public demand, cut costs, serve lower-income customers and, in at least one case, retain a major local employer and the jobs it generates.
“Simply put: Rural America beats out Manhattan for community solar,” Greentech Media reports. “Over 130 rural electric cooperatives in over 30 states are now offering community solar programs at an estimated capacity of 63 megawatts. Municipal and public power utilities have built an additional 29 MW of community solar in 22 programs.”
Much of the impetus is coming from “people and businesses in the most rural parts of the country,” Greentech adds. “The trend is likely to continue, since community solar programs are much more effective in areas with cheap, readily available land and creditworthy subscribers who don’t move often.”
In Colorado, the state energy office, GRID Alternatives, and the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association are developing the country’s largest low-income solar project, a 1.95-MW solar farm that “will serve as a large demonstration of the role that solar energy can take in reducing electricity bills for low-income earners—deemed as those who must spend 4% or more of their income on utility bills,” CleanTechnica reports. It’s the seventh project GRID Alternatives has launched since August 2015 under a $1.2-million state grant.
“The benefits of this project ripple throughout the community,” said GRID Alternatives Executive Director Chuck Watkins. “Not only are we increasing access to renewables and lowering energy costs for high-burden individuals and community institutions. The project is also providing over a thousand hours of job training in solar installation, preparing people for long-term careers in the field.”
That makes the Coyote Ridge Community Solar Farm “a thoughtful demonstration of tailoring the low-income community solar model to broaden access and subscriber benefits,” said Colorado Energy Office Executive Director Kathleen Staks. “This project further conveys scalability to meet local community needs.”
In Arkansas, meanwhile, Ouachita Electric Cooperative “may have broken new ground” when it “helped arrange a dual power purchase agreement with its wholesale power supplier in order to help a defence contractor build its presence near the co-op’s hometown of Camden,” Renewable Energy World explains.
Military contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne was the rural community’s biggest employer, and the town had lost another major manufacturer when it was acquired and its assets moved to Texas. “We knew if we didn’t do something different, we would see continued unemployment, widespread low-income problems, and a shrinking population,” said Ouachita General Manager Mark Cayce.
It turned out Aerojet could improve its prospects for winning federal contracts by diversifying its energy sources, under executive orders signed by president George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “Arkansas had been a closed market for solar,” Cayce said. “It had never been done before on this scale.” But the co-op worked with regulators, its wholesale power provider, and Aerojet’s solar developer, Silicon Ranch, to close the deal.
The co-op “had to work through a lot of politics to get the buy-in from all the right players to make this happen,” Silicon Ranch Marketing Director Matt Beasley told Renewable Energy World.
Greentech Media cites customer demand and low electricity costs as the main factors behind the surge in community solar. It digs into a handful of available pricing models for the service, including a premium on a customer’s regular electricity bill, up-front investment in solar panels, and a bill-credit model more typical of larger, investor-owned utilities, where subscribers receive a credit for signing on to a solar community garden project, then pay a portion of it back to a third-party developer.