New REAP Funds for FY2017 Now Available

(October 18, 2016) The USDA released a notice of solicitation of applications (NOSA) for the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP). The funding notice for fiscal year 2017 provides guidance for applicants including to online resources at FarmEnergy.org and from the USDA.

This notice includes grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Eligible recipients for these projects include agricultural producers and rural small businesses. Residences are not included.

Awards are made on a competitive basis, as determined by the point scoring system also described in the NOSA. Applications can be submitted at any time but the following deadlines apply:

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Rural Areas Benefit from new REAP Awards

The USDA announced another round of awards for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) in mid-July, bringing benefits to 56 states and territories and to a wide range of agricultural sectors. REAP continues to help reduce costs, protect and increase jobs and to produce homegrown clean energy.

Flagshooter hybrid wind/ solar project.The July 2016 round of awards reflect broad interest in cutting energy costs with energy efficiency, the highest number and dollar value of grants. There were 470 awards for a total of $6.5 million in grants.

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REAP Grants for Energy Audits & Renewable Energy Development

On May 10th, 2016 the USDA announced the award of 26 grants, totaling nearly $2 million, to provide help to rural small businesses and agricultural producers to find ways to conserve energy and develop renewable energy systems.

The REAP grants  (pdf) were awarded to universities and state and local governments to provide energy audits and renewable energy development assistance to agricultural producers and rural small businesses. The services help these firms to invest wisely to cut energy waste and to find ways to generate renewable energy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “Nationwide, Americans are lowering their carbon footprint and energy bills by being more energy efficient and switching to renewable energy, and USDA investments make more of these options available. The Rural Energy for America Program also helps businesses create jobs in their communities through the development and installation of energy efficiency and generation projects.”

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed resource conservation and development districts (RC&Ds) to receive these grants. RC&Ds are regional groups created decades ago to provide direct assistance to farmers for conservation and other activities. Congress cut all funding to them in 2011 and many are struggling or are now defunct.

REAP provides grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements, grants for energy audits, and grants for renewable energy planning and development to service providers who work with farmers and rural small businesses. Thanks to investments like these, enough renewable energy has been produced to power more than 959,000 American homes annually, or more than 10.4 billion kWh worth of electricity. In addition, USDA has provided almost $345 million in grants and $430 million in loan guarantees to agricultural producers and rural small business owners from 2009 to 2015.

The list of award recipients is available here.

 

Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.
The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.
The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Press Release: Iowa Electric Co-op Sets Standard for Rural Solar

Contact: Katie Coleman, (312) 795-3710

Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops
Announcement Sets New Iowa Record for Solar from Rural Electric Co-ops

Iowa’s Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) and its member cooperatives announced a major investment in solar energy today, unveiling plans to build 5.5 megawatts of new solar energy at six locations across its service territory. This will be Iowa’s largest solar project from a rural electric co-op, and it represents a 20% increase in Iowa’s total solar capacity (27 MW as of 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association).

CIPCO is Iowa’s largest cooperative energy provider, serving nearly 300,000 residents and about 12,000 commercial/industrial accounts in its 300-mile territory stretching diagonally across Iowa and touching Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The announced projects will be built by Azimuth Energy LLC of St. Louis, MO.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Iowa installed a total of 6 MW of solar energy in 2015.  That means this project alone is just shy of that annual total.

“CIPCO has taken a great step forward in providing their members access to solar energy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Staff Attorney of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines. “CIPCO was clear that this effort is just the first phase of the rural electric cooperative’s long-term plan to incorporate solar as an additional pollution-free resource within its energy portfolio.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the CIPCO announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”

To learn more about the CIPCO announcement visit: http://www.cipco.net/content/cipco-launches-iowas-largest-utility-based-solar-project

Midwest Energy News: ELPC’s Andy Olsen Speaks on Co-ops Embracing Solar

By Kari Lydersen, Midwest Energy News

In Wisconsin, where state regulators and utilities have been perceived as cool to renewable energy, rural cooperatives are making major investments in solar power.

According to solar installers and experts, co-ops, which aren’t subject to regulation by the state’s Public Service Commission, are being more responsive to their customers’ interest in solar.

“What’s very important here is working with cooperatives, they have more flexibility,” said SoCore senior vice president of sales Rob Federighi.

Last year, Wisconsin’s solar capacity grew 39 percent, with community solar and other projects built by co-ops comprising a significant share of that.

That capacity is expected to grow another 40 percent this year – the state’s largest influx of solar power ever – thanks to projects commissioned by the Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Dairyland is a generation & transmission (or G&T) cooperative, that brings together 25 smaller member electric cooperatives and 17 municipal utilities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. Such G&T cooperatives provide wholesale power to distribution cooperatives, which deliver the electricity to customers in rural areas.

Currently Dairyland has only 3 MW of small solar and bio-digesters in its system. The cooperative had incentive to increase its renewable resources because of the closing of DTE Energy’s 40 MW Stoneman biomass plant in Cassville, Wisconsin. Dairyland’s contract with that plant had helped meet its state renewable portfolio obligations.

“Dairyland Power is committed to expanding our investment in solar and other renewables for two main reasons: our members have expressed interest and we continue to diversify our generation portfolio with more renewable energy as part of Dairyland’s overall strategic plan,” said manager of business development Craig Harme. “It is good business practice.”

Dairyland has entered Power Purchase Agreements with two solar developers that will build and own solar installations providing energy to customers in member cooperatives. The cooperative got 30 answers offering 100 different plans in response to its request for proposals last summer, according to Harme.

Chicago-based SoCore will develop solar at 11 sites around the state, for a total of 16.4 MW. Vermont-based groSolar will develop a 2.5 MW project in northern Wisconsin.

Seeding Interest

SoCore senior vice president of development Eric Luesebrink said the project “is really kind of an innovative program” in its design and structure.

“Setting aside the fact it’s probably the largest single solar contracting exercise in Wisconsin, I don’t of know any other approach that’s been collaborative with distribution cooperatives and generation and transmission cooperatives like this,” he said.

Federighi said Dairyland’s RFP didn’t specify that projects had to be scattered over multiple sites, but “I think at the end of the day Dairyland liked the distributed nature of the projects and it fit in well with the grid.”

Distributed projects are “typically better absorbed by the power grid without significant impact on the local infrastructure and reliability,” confirmed Harme. Since the sites are all located near existing utility substations, significant upgrades to the grid should not be needed. SoCore is leasing sites from farmers or landowners with unused space.

“We really worked with the transmission members of Dairyland – who were really asking for solar,” said Federighi. “By partnering with them we really gained a lot of support within the network to do this project, as well as landowners who were really excited about it, as well as member co-ops, who are thinking about their own community solar garden projects, whether we can build systems for them outside of this.”

From One Farming State to Another

GroSolar’s installation will involve 6- to 8-foot-tall tracking panels that move with the sun, increasing efficiency 15 percent over stationary panels. The company says it will provide about 5,000 MWh in the first year, enough to power about 470 homes.

GroSolar spokesperson Maribeth Sawchuk said the company has no other developments in Wisconsin, and is “hoping to use this to get more contacts in the state, and see how local folks feel about solar.”

Sawchuck said the company often does installations on city property, old landfills and universities. GroSolar’s 2.5 MW, 10-acre installation on the Rutland city landfill in Vermont is part of Green Mountain Power’s heavy investment in renewable energy.

The company says the Wisconsin construction will mean about $750,000 in direct wages and more than $1.5 million economic impact on the area, with local contractors hired.

“It’s not just about installing solar, it’s about helping the environment, creating jobs and so much more,” she said.

A Cooperative Model

Keith Reopelle, senior policy director of Clean Wisconsin, said the group is “very pleased” with the Dairyland investment in solar especially given the challenges that solar faces in utility service territories.

“It is interesting we’ve seen more activity and investment by co-ops and municipal utilities under a little bit of a different model,” he said. “It makes sense because they are really just trying to be as responsive as they can to their members. Whether served by investor-owned utilities or cooperatives, solar is becoming more and more popular as the price goes down; and co-ops maybe have an advantage as they are able to be more nimble and more responsive to their customer base.”

“It’s really impressive to see all over the country how cooperatives are embracing solar and finding new ways to implement it,” added Andy Olsen, with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “There are a number of things that led them to this, to diversify their generation mix and move away from fossil fuels, which they have to do regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan.”

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