TODAY’S STUDY: Solar All Across The Land
A Solar Revolution in Rural America
July 2018 (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association)
America’s electric cooperatives are expanding the nation’s solar footprint and bringing the benefits of solar to hundreds of rural communities. In 2014, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) launched the Solar Utility Network Deployment Acceleration (SUNDA) project in collaboration with several electric co-ops to demonstrate the potential for solar electricity generation in rural America. The cost shared program leveraged funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop models and resources for electric cooperatives interested in developing solar energy.
When the SUNDA project began in 2013, less than 1 percent of electric cooperatives had deployed solar PV systems larger than 250 kilowatts. Four years later, the electric cooperative solar landscape is dramatically transformed.
• Today, the average co-op solar project is >1 megawatt, up from 25 kilowatts in 2014.
• Co-ops own or purchase more than nine times as much solar photovoltaic (PV) power as they did in 2013.
• Half of the nation’s co-ops have solar offerings for their members through projects they own, electricity they purchase or joint projects with other co-ops.
By making projects more economical and less risky, SUNDA accelerated solar energy development across the cooperative sector. See Figure 1. The data and information collected over the course of this project provide insights that also can be applied to energy storage and other emerging technologies.
In 2013, with funding support from the DOE, NRECA’s SUNDA team initiated a partnership with 17 cooperatives to build 30 megawatts of solar in 10 states.
The impact of these projects expanded far beyond the footprint of those early adopters. The experiences of the 17 SUNDA co-ops became a foundation of knowledge and solutions for the entire electric cooperative network. SUNDA applied lessons learned and created practical resources— from field manuals to sample business processes—for co-op leaders and staff. Access to these tools and business models reduced the risks and provided a roadmap for co-ops interested in pursuing solar.
As the number and size of cooperatives’ solar projects increased, total solar capacity surged. By the end of 2019, the combined capacity of cooperative solar is expected to surpass one gigawatt—enough electricity to power more than 200,000 homes. The SUNDA team surveyed cooperatives at the beginning of the project and at its conclusion. A third survey conducted midway through the project by NRECA provided additional data on solar activities and the perspectives of co-op leaders.
Electric co-ops are led by and belong to the communities they serve. Cooperatives innovate as they respond to the needs of their members. Some innovations from the SUNDA project include:
• Community solar programs that benefit low- and moderate-income consumers
• Partnerships with military installations to help meet federal energy independence targets
• Combined solar and energy storage projects, including controllable water heaters
The early survey charted a path for the SUNDA project. Co-op respondents voiced concerns that would need to be addressed before they would embark on a solar project. And since they anticipated adding solar capacity but had not yet begun planning, the time was ripe for resources that could inform their decisions. The experiences of the 17 co-ops that collaborated with NRECA on the first phase of solar installations were converted into resources of knowledge and solutions for the entire electric cooperative network. See Figure 2.
The surge in cooperative solar energy, from local community solar programs to large-scale arrays, is helping reshape the energy future in rural America. This report outlines both the drivers of this transformation and the factors that made it possible.
At the outset of the SUNDA project, co-ops who responded to an initial survey on PV solar cited a variety of considerations for why they had not pursued a solar program. The two top concerns were the cost of solar and their lack of familiarity with PV technology. Electric co-ops also pointed to caps on “self-supply generation” in long-term wholesale power contracts with their power suppliers as a potential challenge. The following is a summary of factors that enabled cooperatives to address each of these challenges.
Consumer-member demand. Co-ops are committed to serving their members. In a 2016–’17 survey, co-ops with renewable energy programs were asked about factors driving their decision to offer or support renewable energy, including solar programs. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they were motivated by a desire to increase consumer-member satisfaction; 59 percent cited consumer demand for solar offerings.
Decline in the cost of solar. Over the course of the SUNDA project, the cost of installed PV solar dropped by nearly half. In 2012, one co-op paid $2.40 per watt for a 1-MW deployment. By 2017, GreenPower EMC in Georgia paid $1.35 per watt for installations ranging between 1 and 3 MW. Forty-three percent of co-op survey respondents in 2017 said the declining cost of solar factored into their decision to pursue a solar project.
Economies of scale. In 2014, generation and transmission co-ops (G&Ts) had deployed a limited number of small solar projects, which were mostly demonstration projects. Tri-State Electric Cooperative, with a 30-MW solar array in New Mexico, was the only G&T with significant solar capacity. By the end of 2016, nine G&Ts had launched new solar projects in partnership with their distribution co-op members, totaling more than 370 MW. Today, G&Ts are developing 77 percent of planned co-op solar projects. Their entry into solar has been a game-changer, with G&T solar deployments significantly increasing electric co-op total solar capacity, lowering the cost through economies of scale, and reducing the business risk for their distribution co-ops.
Community solar. The community solar model aligns well with the co-op business model. A community solar program allows individual households to purchase or lease panels or to purchase a share of the output of a larger solar PV project. Community solar is a flexible model: Larger programs can benefit from economies of scale in construction and they can be sized and priced to fit member demand. As of December 2017, cooperatives had or were planning 196 community solar projects.
New financing models. Early in the SUNDA project, NRECA created a financial screening tool that allows co-ops to evaluate the feasibility of a solar program at their location. The tool enables a comparison of costs for small and large systems, which partly explains the increase in the average size of co-op deployments. During the same period, co-ops’ traditional lenders standardized their solar financing options, making it faster and easier to finance solar projects.
Collaboration. The partnership between SUNDA participants, NRECA and the cooperative network has spread knowledge and workable business models. The SUNDA team conducted extensive outreach to cooperatives with training and resources, including materials, webinars and NRECA events. See Figure 3…
In 2013, less than 1 percent of electric cooperatives had deployed solar PV systems larger than 250 kW. By the end of 2019, the combined capacity of cooperative solar is expected to surpass 1,000 MW. The SUNDA project played an instrumental role in accelerating cooperative solar development through aggressive outreach to co-ops with training and resources. The SUNDA project used five methods to assist the co-ops:
1. Learning by doing
2. Learning in groups/peer-to-peer learning
3. Standardization of designs, processes, templates and tools
4. Direct technical assistance
5. Data-driven assessment of project efficacy
This approach, coupled with NRECA’s broad geographic reach and its outreach, training and communications channels, resulted in a model for accelerating the adoption of solar PV across the country. It created a virtuous cycle of improvement and sets the stage for future projects.