­­In northern New Mexico the sun shines nearly every day of the year. If solar energy is going to be viable anywhere, it will be here—and a small electric cooperative in historic Taos is taking advantage of it. In addition to supporting new solar projects in its service area, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative is offering its customers the opportunity to buy solar energy from “plots” in a “garden” of solar power generation.

The solar garden concept is one way that some progressive, consumer-owned and governed electric cooperatives are integrating renewable energy into their distribution utility offerings. They construct and operate a “garden” of solar power generation with arrays of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels which convert sunlight to electricity. Consumers can buy panels outright or subscribe to their output, and the “fruits” of their part of the garden are delivered to them over the cooperative’s distribution lines. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Solar Power.”)

Taos’ Kit Carson found that consumers were increasingly interested in solar power, and a few were already deploying solar PV at their homes and businesses, but only a few could deal with the many barriers.

Those barriers include the up-front installation expense, difficulty determining the return on investment, inconsistent credibility and quality of sellers and installers, limited rooftop or land area, no place to deploy in multi-occupant dwellings, challenges of maintenance, aesthetics, and more.

Solar for the Community

In recent years, the cooperative has embarked upon a series of solar power projects with the assistance of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, beginning with a project that now provides essentially all of the electric energy requirements for the Taos campus of the University of New Mexico. Kit Carson’s aggressive, industry-leading approach has, according to the cooperative, resulted in more than 6,000 kilowatts of installed solar PV in their service area. This is enough to supply the average annual needs of 1,000 U.S. homes of 1,500 square feet each, or to fuel 2,600 typical hybrid electric vehicles sufficiently to go 15,000 miles each, the average annual mileage driven by North Americans.

Kit Carson’s community solar projects actually provide shade from the sun’s energy via parking spaces under the same facilities that are turning solar energy into electricity. They even powered the cooperative’s board/community meeting room with solar panels, saying, “We’re not going to promote a service that we don’t use ourselves.” Their diverse solar energy projects have even become must-see stops in tours of the renowned southwestern scenery, Native American culture, and art in this Land of Enchantment. (See related story: “Japan Solar Energy Soars, But Grid Needs to Catch Up.”)

Another such innovator is Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative in Rockford, Minn.,  which recognized that a growing number of its consumers were interested in renewable energy. After undertaking wind and solar energy demonstration projects starting in 2007, Wright-Hennepin determined solar power could be economically viable.

The utility constructed a centralized solar facility in which interested cooperative members could purchase “plots” (i.e., solar PV panels) and reap the “produce” (i.e., the electricity generated by them). The output of each consumer’s remotely located solar PV panels is deducted from their locally metered consumption, just as if the solar power were being produced on their own premises. The first project was fully subscribed by 17 residential consumers in only two months, and the second one is already 50 percent subscribed, even though construction has not yet started. (See related photos: “Mojave Mirrors: World’s Largest Solar Energy Ready to Shine.”)

Wright-Hennepin was the first cooperative in Minnesota to offer this “community solar” option to its members. It was also the first in the nation to incorporate electric battery storage in an innovative approach to provide benefits to all of the utility’s consumers, not just those getting power from the solar garden.

Challenges to Address

Both Wright-Hennepin and Kit Carson are committed to not only continuing but expanding their community solar activities. Their peers are closely watching them because there are barriers to overcome.

For example, the output of the solar projects reduces the cooperatives’ revenues by more than it reduces their costs in the short run. They “take the long view” of the importance of clean, renewable energy while recognizing that if they don’t provide a competitive solar power option to their consumers, other providers will. (See related story: “Sun Plus Nanotechnology: Can Solar Energy Get Bigger by Thinking Small?“)

Not every consumer is equally affected by the solar power projects.  Some benefit from reduced power bills while others do not, so the cooperatives continue to work to maximize benefits for all consumers.

Both are working to mitigate limitations on how much solar power they can have under power supply contracts with the utilities from which they purchase the power that they resell to their consumers.

These two coops found that they must improve monitoring and control of their electric distribution systems to safely, securely and reliably accommodate a growing number of small, dispersed consumer energy sources in an electric distribution system originally designed to move power to these customers from a handful of high-voltage substations.

In the process, they are in the vanguard of utilities developing a new model for the 21st-century electric grid that includes ways for all of their consumers to participate in renewable energy.

Comments

  1. Steven Collier
    Austin, TX
    April 4, 11:30 am

    Puskar,

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    The billions of people in the world who presently use so much less KWh/person/year than the US, Europe and Japan will rapidly use more and more because of the dramatic positive effects on quality of life and productivity of business. And they will rely much more on:

    1. Distributed rather than centralized generation/storage because of the better overall system:

    a. reliability – the probability of 10,000 10KW distributed energy sources all going down at once is insignificant compared to that of a single 100MW plant going down or the outage of a major transmission corridor essential for the delivery of power from that single plant as well as availability of local standby power in the event of a systemwide grid outage;

    b. security – the probability of 10,000 10KW plants being breached by a security threat is insignificant compared to that of a single 100 MW plant or a major transmission corrider essential to the delivery of power from that plant,

    c. flexibility – diversity to maximize reliability and security and economy of the local distribution system as well as to give customers more choices of primary energy source, reliability, power quality, etc.;

    d. upgradeability – single centralized power station, typically 500 to 2,500 MW is very expensive to replace when fuel supply becomes untenable or new technology is far superior while replacement or upgrade can be implemented gradually with ten of thousands of smaller, distributed generators.

    e. efficiency – no T&D losses, no parasitic station auxiliary load, less likelihood of having to curtail the most economical/renewable resources most efficient central due to transmission or market constraints;

    2. Renewable rather than carbon / uranium burning energy sources because of:

    a. Less adverse environmental impacts,

    b. Essentially infinite supply of primary energy that is not subject to market or geopolitical disruption,

    c. Increasing uncertainty regarding the availability and cost of conventional fossil fuels as global electric energy consumption increases by orders of magnitude (“It’s a small world, after all.”)

  2. neleah
    maine
    April 3, 9:38 am

    nice artical it helped me out alot

  3. Steven Collier
    Austin, Texas
    October 25, 2013, 10:53 am

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I enjoyed reading your article.

    I think that there is still considerable resistance by the electric industry incumbents to solar for several reasons. First, it is a challenge for today’s grid to accommodate because of its stochastic, non-dispatchable nature and the likelihood of its deployment more on the distribution grid than as traditional central station power. Second, it is likely to be deployed extensively by consumers and other non-utility market participants, thereby reducing incumbent utility’s revenues more than it reduces their costs. Third, obviously, the coal, oil, gas and nuclear fuel and generation industries’ market share is threatened. Finally, there seems to be an continuing belief by some that burning coal and uranium will be sufficient for most are all of our energy needs for the future.

    In the USA, the electric distribution cooperatives and public power systems, who are not-for-profit, consumer owned, and primarily motivated by the health and welfare of their local communities, will be leaders in the deployment of sustainable energy technologies. Unfortunately, the currently represent less than one fourth of the market.

  4. Puskar
    October 24, 2013, 6:22 am

    Good concept. Solar is picking up in India too. Phase II of the national solar mission is on its way. The domestic solar industry however has still not developed to the extent that can cater to demands at competitive prices.
    http://greencleanguide.com/2013/10/23/phase-ii-of-national-solar-mission-to-also-make-local-sourcing-mandatory/