Electric cooperatives are a less visible part of Americas power mix. While these cooperatives serve fewer customers than investor-owned utilities, these non-profit electricity providers cover a larger service area nationally, which is mostly comprised of rural areas.
These cooperatives are particularly prominent in the historically agricultural Midwest, and in some states they are leading the deployment of solar and other forms of renewable energy. This was evidenced on Wednesday, when Wisconsins Dairyland Power Cooperative announced that it had finalized agreements for 15 MW of solar PV at 12 locations across the state.
Dairyland has been described as a cooperative of cooperatives, in that it is a power generation and transmission cooperative whose members are rural electric distribution cooperatives and municipal utilities. As such, Dairyland is procuring the electricity generated by these 12 installations on behalf of its member cooperatives in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Chicagos SoCore Energy and Vermonts groSolar will build, own, operate and maintain the 12 plants, which will be 500 kW to 2.5 MW in capacity and will incorporate tracking technology. Beyond the contracted power to Dairylands members, the excess electricity will be sold into the wholesale market.
Wisconsin currently only has around 25 MW of installed PV, which means that this 15 MW will increase the state’s installed solar capacity by 40%.
Along with a relatively low level of installed PV, Wisconsin has a state government which has been hostile to solar. The most dramatic example of this was a moves by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) to impose additional fixed charges and change the compensation rate for excess electricity generated from wholesale to retail in the service area of utility We Energies.
As these changes were made without a record of evidence to support them, a Wisconsin court quickly repealed the demand charge. This has not stopped the appointees of Governor Scott Walker (R) at the PSC from continuing to resist the growth of solar.
Its been a difficult time for solar policy in Wisconsin lately, Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) told pv magazine. Weve seen some setbacks at the PSC in terms of investor-owned utility programs.
This highlights why the work by electric coops is so important. They have a lot of flexibility and can operate independently, and are not subject to rates by the commission.
Olsen says that cooperatives are leading solar development in the Midwest. Dairyland was clear that this effort grew out of support for solar from their members, commitment to diversifying their generation and stabilizing costs, which are goals of cooperatives across the region, stated Olsen.
Olsen notes that while rural electric cooperatives typically do not build or own the generation themselves, that by working with independent developers and power producers the projects they initiate can still access the Investment Tax Credit (ITC).
Additionally, there are a number of programs through which they can receive support, such as financing assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program.