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Tina Casey headshot

Co-Ops Bring Solar to Hundreds Of Rural Communities

By Tina Casey

The U.S. Energy Department pushed out a raft of good news for renewable energy fans this past week. Of particular note is an update on the PV System Toolkit supported by the agency's SunShot solar initiative. The toolkit focuses on helping rural communities partake in the surging solar market that cities and suburban communities now enjoy.

Given that the Energy Department promoted renewables with such vigor this week, and that President Donald Trump's recently unveiled budget proposal includes steep cuts for the agency, it's possible that Energy Secretary Rick Perry is deliberately energizing stakeholders -- including voters and legislators -- to step up and voice their support for federal programs that help grow the market for wind and solar.

Many stakeholders in the solar energy game

The new PV System Toolkit demonstrates just how deeply the solar industry is now embedded in the civic infrastructure of the US.

The effort is helmed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which won an Energy Department 'Sunrise' award designed to cut costs by developing templates for replicating solar innovations:

"NRECA is partnering with 17 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 Toolkit,'" the co-op association announced.

"This resource is a ready-to-use set of standard engineering designs, financing models, templates, tools, and plans, and its suite of materials offers best practices designed to reduce solar adoption costs and help co-ops across the country navigate the many ways in which they can integrate solar into their asset portfolios."

Spreading the solar word

The PV System Toolkit is a lifeline for electric co-ops that are trying to get a foothold in the solar market. As nonprofits, these agencies are not eligible for the tax breaks that enable other power companies to develop solar.

If a significant number of co-ops can access low-cost solar, the impact on the U.S. energy landscape will be enormous. According to the Energy Department, about 800 co-ops in the U.S. serve more than 12 percent of all electricity customers, covering an area encompassing 70 percent of U.S. territory.

Judging from NRECA's current activities, the interest in solar is intense among rural communities:

"NRECA is engaging hundreds of co-ops and thousands of co-op staffers and representatives as they consider offering solar power as an option for their members. From 2015 to 2016, 3,000 representatives from 347 co-ops — more than a third of all co-ops and more than half of all generation transmission co-ops — participated in NRECA’s PV System Toolkit webinars."

Thousands of co-op board members and employees are also engaging with the PV System Toolkit and solar training sessions for co-ops.

Here is the happy recap from the Energy Department:

"America’s electric cooperatives expect to double their current solar capacity by the end of 2017, adding more than 480 megawatts of solar for a total capacity of 873 MW nationwide."

Next steps for NRECA include engaging on solar with each one of its members.

Walking the solar walk

So far, NRECA provided support for utility-scale solar projects to communities in 15 states, adding up to 23 megawatts.

The Energy Department highlights three such examples:

"Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation installed a community solar system specifically designed to make solar affordable: members pay only $20 each month for the output of 5.5 solar panels.

"The Appalachian Electric Cooperative in Tennessee created an option for co-op members to donate electricity from the solar system to a local non-profit...

"... in North Carolina, distribution co-op Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation is adding storage technology to its 1.2 MW system in 2017 to boost the community’s resiliency."

More and better solar innovations

NRECA won its funding in 2013 as part of an Energy Department grant program for innovative approaches that could be duplicated across the country.

Another award of interest in a round of funding for the Tennessee-based Electric Power Research Institute.

That award aims squarely at modeling "high-penetration solar future scenarios in the southeastern United States," with this result:

"an end-to-end strategy and operations project that leverages prior efforts, including DOE-funded projects, and provides a pathway for successfully integrating large amounts of solar generation," according to the department.

EPRI is a diverse organization that covers the full range of power-generating resources. Its roster of solar programs has expanded in recent years. One noteworthy initiative is a three-year solar collaboration and education program that began in 2016.

Funded by the Energy Department's SunShot Initiative, the effort aims to develop a curriculum to train and educate the future workforce in the electric power sector, with a focus on integrating solar, wind and other renewables into power grids. Micro-grid integration is also included.

The initiative involves Arizona State University, Portland State University, the University of California, Riverside, and other stakeholders in addition to EPRI.

With all this activity going on, even coal-friendly President Trump might be preparing to hop aboard the renewable energy bandwagon.

One hint is an infrastructure report prepared in January on behalf of the president's transition team, which included a healthy dose of renewable energy.

However, so far Trump has been playing his renewable energy cards close to the vest.

In a speech on Monday, for example, the president continued to emphasize his goal of bringing back coal jobs even though facts on the ground strongly indicate that American and global coal markets are facing permanent decline.

Image (screenshot, cropped and color enhanced): via NECRA.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey