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Wright Hennepin's community solar project at their headquarters in Rockford, Minnesota (Photograph by Clean Energy Resource Teams/Flickr)

Solar ‘Gardens’ Let Communities Share Renewable Power

­­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.