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Just what is a Solar Farm?

by Susan Simons

    The Journal has been running  a series of articles about renewable energy projects around the state initiated by rural electric cooperatives and supported by their power supplier, the cooperative Tri-State Transmission and Generation.  Following is the last of a series of articles on this topic.

    United Power, a rural electric coop in Brighton, Colorado which serves homes, farms, and businesses in the north central front range, launched the nation’s first solar farm in May 2009.

    The cost to install enough solar panels on a home to fully power that home is out of reach for most homeowners, even with federal tax credits.  In addition, many homes have poor solar orientation.  Also, few landlords will make the investment on rental properties.  So Jerry Marizza, the coop’s New Energy Program Coordinator, got a revolutionary idea.  A grant from the Governor’s Energy Office helped to make the idea a reality, and United Power expects to break even in their first year of operation.

    The Sol Partners, Solar Cooperative Farm leases a solar panel to customers for twenty-five years for $1,050 dollars.  The panels are installed on United’s property in Brighton, and United Power takes care of all the installation, maintenance and insurance costs.  Investors can track their energy output online and it is credited to their monthly bill.  One panel generates a credit of $3-4 dollars a month, so it would take 17-25 years to recoup the investment depending on rate increases.  Customers who lease one 210-watt panel would get about a 3% return on the investment each year.  If they move, customers can take the credits with them within the United Power territory, transfer them to someone in the territory, or donate them to a non-profit in the area.  Investors can add panels as they can afford them, but initially, the farm has limited investors to two panels.

    Module 1, which contains 48 panels, is sold out, and United expects to develop Module 2 after the budget is approved by their board in October.  They have room for eight modules of 48 panels each.  Module 1 was financed by a $50,000 dollar grant from the Governer’s Energy Office, approximately $50,000 from individual investors, and about $50,000 contributed by United Power for infrastructure.

    The project went from conception to activation in 6-9 months.  Troy Whitmore,  Director of External Affairs for United Power, credits their board for challenging the staff to do more with renewables under their new energy efficiency program.  While Tri-State has been very active in United’s other energy efficiency initiatives, it is not yet involved in the Solar Farm.   Whitmore explained that the project is still too small.

    Rural electric cooperatives are gradually moving into renewable energy production.  These projects are community-scale projects and are distinct from massive renewable energy projects which  a cooperative like Tri-State might initiate called utility-scale projects.  This series of articles has featured pioneering ideas like United Power’s Solar Farm or the partnership Highline Electric Association has with Ormat Techologies to convert recovered heat from the operation of a natural gas pipeline to electricity or the project Delta-Montrose Electric Association has developed to finance installation of geo-thermal systems for homeowners.

    According to Whitmore of United Power, “it’s difficut to do renewables” at the local level.

    Members of local coops don’t want to see their rates go up, especially in this economy, so it’s necessary to secure funding and package the project in ways that appeal to the pocketbooks of member-consumers.  Another factor which energizes local renewable initiatives is a board which challenges and enables staff to do more with local projects.

    Locally produced power is called distributed energy as opposed to the centralized energy provided by investor-owned utilities through nationwide networks of transmission lines.  According to Amory Lovins and co-authors in the book, Small is Profitable:  The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size, the free market already favors distributed energy over centralized energy for affordable, reliable power with the least risk.

    Rural electric cooperatives were formed in the 1930’s to deliver locally produced, reliable power at low cost to communities which were not served by investor-owned utilities.  They understand the benefits of distributed energy.  It’s natural that they become innovators in the shift to dependable, local, renewable sources of power.