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

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

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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Growing Biomass: Why Incentives Matter

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Midwest Energy News examines the importance the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) still holds for farmers by talking with Steve Flick, the founder of the Show Me Energy Cooperative and with Andy Olsen, a senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“Olsen says biomass projects such as Show Me Energy serve multiple policy goals. They’re a source of cleaner-burning, homegrown energy, and the crops they use as feedstocks can help reduce soil erosion, improve air and water quality and conserve wildlife habitat.”

Read the story.

ELPC Commends Expert Testimony on Farm Bill Clean Energy Programs Before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the US Senate Committee on Agriculture heard testimony from a number of expert witnesses in support of clean energy programs in the Farm Bill. Witnesses and Senators alike praised the programs’ positive job creation, environmental protection and rural economic development benefits.

“We commend the experts and Senators who took a stand for homegrown clean energy today,” says Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), a long-time champion of the Farm Bill’s clean energy programs. “Through these programs, America has made unprecedented gains in rural renewable energy and energy efficiency. Congress and the White House should continue this forward momentum.”

Steve Flick, one of the nation’s farm energy entrepreneurs, called for Congressional action to renew and fully fund core Farm Bill clean energy programs, such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) and the Biorefinery Assistance Program. “America’s farmers, ranchers and rural residents can have a bright future ahead of them with the right incentives,” Flick says. “Renewable energy is the future of rural America.”

Bennie Hutchins of Mississippi provided numerous examples of how REAP has helped agricultural producers and rural small businesses save money and produce income across the South. He shared ELPC analysis showing that REAP produces jobs at a greater than average rate.

“Farm Bill clean energy programs have been an unprecedented success. They have helped farmers reduce their energy bills and energy waste through energy efficiency and accelerated the introduction of modern clean energy technologies into the marketplace,” Olsen says. “Congress and the White House should continue this momentum by renewing and fully funding core Farm Bill clean energy programs.”