Rural co-ops are adding solar generation at a breakneck pace, survey finds

Energize Weekly, July 25, 2018

Solar generating capacity at rural electric cooperatives is growing rapidly and expected to reach 1 gigawatt in 2019—a twenty-nine-fold increase in 10 years, according to a report by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

“The surge in cooperative solar energy, from local community solar programs to large-scale arrays, is helping reshape the energy future in rural America,” the association said.

About half of the nation’s 900 consumer-owned, not-for-profit co-ops have solar offerings through their own installations, purchase solar electricity or have joint projects with other co-ops.

In 2014, NRECA launched a pilot program with 17 co-ops to develop solar electricity generation. The experiences of those co-ops have become “a foundation of knowledge and solutions for the entire electric cooperative network,” the report said.

Forces inside and outside the cooperatives have shaped this trend. A survey by NRECA found that 59 percent of the co-ops said that consumers were demanding solar offerings. At the same time, the price of photovoltaic solar installations was dropping.

In 2012, one co-op paid $2.40 per watt for a 1-megawatt (MW) installation. By 2017, Green Power EMC in Georgia paid $1.35 per watt for installations ranging between 1 and 3 MW, according to the report.

The size of projects is also increasing. In 2014, the size of the average co-op project was 25 kilowatts. In 2017, it was more than 1 MW.

Still, for financial reasons, the majority of the 584 cooperatives surveyed, which have or have plans for solar projects, said they would not install systems larger than 100 kilowatts.

Another element that has spurred solar development has been the rise of the community solar garden, where customers can buy a share of the project’s panels or output.

“The community solar model offered cooperatives a low-risk model for supplying a service that members wanted,” the report said.

The first solar garden was done in 2009 by United Power in Colorado. By 2015, 34 co-ops had adopted variations of the community solar model, and in 2018, nearly three-quarters of the association’s members had community solar online or in development.

“Like co-ops themselves, community solar programs have open membership, they are local, and they are consumer-owned,” the report said.

The “game changer” in the development of cooperative solar was the entrance of the generation and transmission associations (G&T) that provide consumer cooperatives with their power, the report said.

In 2014, there was only one large-scale G&T solar project, 30 MW, owned by the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which serves co-ops in four western states. By the end of 2016, nine G&Ts had solar projects in partnership with their co-ops, adding up to more than 370 MW.

“G&Ts are responsible for substantially driving up the combined total capacity,” the report said, and they are now developing 77 percent of planned co-op solar projects.

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