The Midwest Embraces Solar in a Big Way

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The Midwest has been seeing some big developments on the solar front. Here’s a roundup of some of the news we’re excited about these days. Iowa gets its biggest solar farm to date

Farmers Electric Cooperative became interested in solar in 2008 as a solution to the rising cost of energy. The cooperative began by adding panels to local schools, then added community solar gardens that families, businesses, and nonprofits could buy into. Now, Farmers Electric has added 2,900 solar panels to a four-acre solar farm near Kalona, south of Iowa City. It is almost triple the size of the solar farm in Decorah, making it the largest solar farm in the state.

The farm will generate up to 1.1 million kWh per year, or enough to power 120 homes. The cooperative currently boasts the “highest per-capita solar generation rate of any utility in the country,” with potential for 11,800 watts of solar power per customer. “In 2008, there was just one little bitty array in Johnson, Washington and Iowa counties. There were four modules. I don’t know how many modules there are now, but it’s in the thousands,” Warren McKenna, the CEO of Farmers Electric Cooperative, told The Des Moines Register.

State and federal tax credits, along with incentives from investor-owned Alliant Energy, are two of the major factors that have contributed to solar growth. Higher demand for incentives spurred Iowa lawmakers to triple the 4.5 million tax credits available to solar projects.

The state supreme court also ruled that nonprofits, such as Eagle Point Solar, can enter into power purchase agreements. The president of Eagle Point Solar, Barry Shear, says this will help solar development take off. The nonprofit had played a key role in making Iowa’s largest solar farm possible, having built and currently owning the farm. Farmers Electric plans to buy the farm after a decade.

In the same Des Moines Register article, Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney at Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines, said that he believes the farm will show utilities that solar is a good investment. “We hope to see more utilities figure out ways to make solar work. I don’t think that this will be the biggest project for long. Utilities are well positioned to build large projects and advance solar in the state,” said Mendelbaum.

Farmers Electric still continues to own and maintain the community solar garden infrastructure, as well as insuring it. McKenna estimates that altogether, businesses and families generate about 400 MW of solar energy, and estimates that about $5 million have been invested in solar. “For some people, it’s a greener mindset — they want to be more responsible,” said McKenna. Originally, the group’s goal was to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, but with the recent developments, they expect to reach that goal by 2015.

Meanwhile, in Northwest Iowa, a farmer powers his pivot irrigation system with solar

Dolf Ivener, a businessman involved with construction and property management, as well as being a farmer, designed a solar-powered pivot irrigation system to water his 160-acre cornfield located southeast of Whiting, Iowa. The pivot system was designed based on the average 4.3 hours of daily sunlight the Sioux City region receives each season.

Ivener was first introduced to solar four years ago, through an uncle who worked in renewable energy. He waited four years to act on that interest, and since then the price of solar panels has dropped by 80%. He also received a 30% federal tax credit, and combined with an 18% state tax credit, he only ended up paying for slightly more than half of his $23,000 system.

Each of the 22 solar panels produce 300 watts — enough to pump water through the system’s pipes and propel its wheels around the field four times, the same number of times typically needed for irrigated farmland such as his own. He is the first U.S. farmer to use solar for an irrigation system.

One of the challenges he ran into while installing the panels was abnormal weather conditions. Three heavy rains flooded the Missouri River bottom land, slowing the installation — which could even mean that the system may not be used at all this season. Ivener said he wouldn’t be surprised if the pivot ran even for just a day. However, he still believes that it will be a good investment in the long run, and if everything works out right, he should be seeing payback in about ten years.

Ivener has a 10-year deal with the rural electric coop, Western Iowa Power Cooperative (WIPCO), which also serves Mantana along with eight other counties. WIPCO installed a bidirectional electric meter in the field to measure the excess power the array feeds back into the loop, and for every excess kW, WIPCO will pay Ivener 4 1/2 cents. Then during drought years, when the irrigation pivot will have to run more often, Ivener will buy power from WIPCO at 11 1/2 cents for every kW.

Ivener’s current project is a four-unit apartment building in Sioux City, which will have an array of more than 60 solar panels, generating enough power that tenants will get free utilities. He also plans to put a similar irrigation system at his family’s farm near Hornick Iowa sometime next year.

The developer of Michigan’s largest wind project branches into solar

Rich Vander Veen is known in Gatriot County for his part in developing Michigan’s largest wind project, which was nearly 213 MW with 133 turbines, as well as his hands-on “Community Participation Model” approach. Now, he is expanding his interest in renewables to include solar.

Vander Veen is a member of Pure Michigan Solar Team, which is looking to build a 5 MW community solar project in the state’s capital. They are hoping to sign a contract with municipally owned Lansing Board of Water and Light in order to make this project possible, and their Request for Proposal application is due on August 11.

This would be a big step in the right direction for developing solar in Michigan. DTE and Consumers Energy have often been criticized for being slow to develop solar in Michigan, but Vander Veen is hoping to speed up the process. “We’re quickly building a Michigan supply chain that will explain to people how the Clean Air Act works in terms of solar,” said Vander Veen in an interview published in Great Lakes Echo. “It’s going to be a series of proposals that go after RFPs like Lansing and see that those community solar projects stay in the midwest.”

His main interest has been in developing policies that will encourage renewables, particularly when it comes to customer choice. He was involved with negotiating Michigan’s 10% by 2015 Renewable Portfolio Standard, but believes they need to take those numbers even further. “I definitely think we should be talking about 25% by 2025, at a minimum,” said Vander Veen.

Like Iowa, Missouri announces its largest solar farm yet

22,000 solar panels have been installed across more than 40 acres of land in Springfield, located in Greene County. It is Missouri’s largest solar farm yet, capable of producing 4.95 MW, enough to power 900 homes annually. The system is operated by Strata Solar, and currently city utilities owns the property. In seven years city utilities will have the option to buy the system. “It allows customers who want to be able to say that I get a portion or all my energy from renewable source to have the opportunity here in Springfield,” Joel Alexander, Communications Manager for City Utilities, told Ozarksfirst.

Customers who opt into the system will have to pay voluntary solar rates approved by the City Council. Currently, solar adds an average of $20 – $30 to a household’s monthly bill, but Alexander expects that to change. “As time goes on, with EPA regulations and changes in the economy, and changes in the generation of energy, this is going to become a lower cost.”

Alexander acknowledges the progress that Missouri has made, and the progress yet to come. “About 10-percent of our annual portfolio actually does come from renewable. There’s a lot of interest and a lot of talk about this throughout town from our customers,” said Alexander.

What they’re looking into now is how to make sure customers benefit financially as much as possible from opting into the solar system. “What we’re looking at doing is how can we make this cost-effective for our customers to the purchase end of the program and we’re looking at a variable writer that would be there to help customers do this.”

And last but not least, MREA celebrates the 25th anniversary of its annual Energy Fair

The Midwest Renewable Energy Associations, or MREA, has been hosting an annual Energy Fair for 25 years, 20 years before solar was affordable enough to become mainstream. Some of the people who attend have been in the solar industry for the past 40 years, and have been a large part of developing the solar industry into what it is today. This year, for its 25th anniversary, the fair was held on the grounds of the Midwest Renewable Energy Associations Facility in Custer, Wisconsin.

The fair was founded by Home Power’s editor and founder Richard Perez, as a way for renewable energy enthusiasts to gather to share experiences and learn about the latest developments in renewable energy. The fair consists of a series of lectures and seminars offered by industry experts, and also offers a trade show.