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EERE Success Story—Electric Cooperatives Channel Solar Resources to Rural American Communities

February 4, 2016 - 12:07pm


The CoServ Solar Station in Krugerville, Texas. Photo: KEN OLTMANN/CoServ

The CoServ Solar Station in Krugerville, Texas. Photo: KEN OLTMANN/CoServ

Some of the most remote areas in the United States were also some of the last places to get access to electricity, with as many as nine out of ten rural homes without electricity in the mid-1930s. After President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, things began to change. Roosevelt’s New Deal era sparked the creation of today’s 900 electric cooperatives (co-ops) that power the homes of more than 42 million Americans across 47 states. These non-profit, member-owned electricity companies cover 70% of U.S. geographic territory and focus on ensuring that all rural communities have access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable sources of electricity.  

More Americans in major cities are powering their homes and businesses with clean and renewable solar electricity as the cost of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy systems decline dramatically. Working with member co-ops, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) is spearheading a national initiative to make going solar cheaper, faster, and easier in rural American communities.

As a part of its SunShot Initiative award, Solar Utility Networks: Replicable Innovations In Solar Energy (SUNRISE), NRECA is partnering with 14 co-ops, Power Secure, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC) , and Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange to develop, test, and deploy the “PV System Package,” a ready-to-use  set of standard engineering designs, financing models, templates, tools, and plans. This suite of materials and best practices is designed to not only reduce solar adoption costs, but also help co-ops across the country navigate the many ways in which they can integrate solar into their asset portfolios. Through this project, NRECA is also supporting the deployment of at least 23 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale PV in 15 states, while providing hundreds of rural communities with proven solutions to leverage the benefit of cost-competitive and reliable solar electricity generation.   

A few of the first co-ops to work with NRECA to deploy solar projects that meet and serve the needs of their members are Great River Energy, a generation and transmission co-op in Minnesota; CoServ Electric, the second largest co-op in Texas; and Eau Claire Energy Co-Op in Wisconsin. CoServ installed a 2 MW system on a 16 acre site in Krugerville as a community solar solution designed to make solar energy affordable to all of its members. In this setup, members can purchase kilowatt-hour (kWh) blocks of power from the site for 12.5¢ per kWh. Similarly, Eau Claire Energy Co-op offers its members shares in an 872 kW off-site shared solar system, in order to benefit directly from the electricity that their portion of the system produces over a period of 20 years. Members of the Eau Claire Energy Co-op are able to purchase solar panels at cost, securing rates as low as $2.10 per watt for the next two decades.

Demand for NRECA’s PV System Package continues to grow – one informational webinar drew attention from 189 co-ops -- and now NRECA is engaging 37 new co-ops as they consider offering solar power as a choice for their members. Moreover, private investors are beginning to notice the value that co-ops bring to the community. In collaboration with the National Renewables Cooperative Organization, NRECA’s project partner CFC recently signed a letter of intent with an investor to make $100 million in tax equity available for new utility-scale solar projects for co-ops. In tax equity financing, investors usually pay for part of the upfront costs of the solar system. In return, the investor receives earnings from the system’s output and equity from the tax incentives. While many co-ops are non-profits, larger co-ops that do not solely rely on member support and are creating projects that are between 1 MW and 50 MW are eligible to take advantage of this new program.

Because electric co-ops serve large geographic areas and deliver electricity to more than 12% of all electricity customers in the U.S., NRECA’s work is critical to the widespread deployment of solar energy. Their work is not only making it easier for electric co-ops to deploy solar, but their efforts are helping to make solar electricity accessible to millions of Americans for the very first time. Check out this video from CoServ on this project to learn more.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.