Wabash Valley Power Alliance Makes It Easy for Co-ops to Be Green with Community Solar

Kermit the Frog used to lament that it “wasn’t easy being green” and up until recently, rural electric cooperatives (RECs) and their members were likely in agreement with the legendary muppet. With small residential solar arrays running upwards of $20,000, going green with renewable energy was financially out of reach for most rural residents, farms, and small businesses even with rebates and tax incentives.

What’s a frog or person to do?

Fortunately for the 23 rural electric co-ops across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri that are part of the Wabash Valley Power Alliance, a solution appeared in 2017. Andrew Horstman, the manager of load response at Wabash Valley, explains.

“Not-for-profit generation and transmission electric cooperatives like Wabash Valley have traditionally relied on electricity generated from coal, hydro and other fossil fuels. With demand for renewable energy and lower carbon emissions growing, our board of directors gave us the direction to diversify our energy sources. There was one caveat: it had to make economic sense. Solar energy made sense because it keeps rates down for our members.”

He continues, “That led to the creation of Co-op Solar, a community solar program designed to make solar power accessible, affordable, and reliable for our member co-ops and their members.”

Community solar, while a relatively new concept, is one of the fastest growing segments of the solar industry. According to the National Renewables Energy Laboratory (NREL), by the end of 2019, the country had 1.3 GW of community solar built and another 1.8 GW in the development pipeline. Rural electric generating and distribution cooperatives have been quick to jump on the bandwagon because community solar makes participating in the solar energy revolution easier, more affordable and accessible for members.

One reason is economies of scale. “Wabash Valley can build a solar system that is much larger than an individual can build on their own and we can do it cheaper,” Horstman says.

Community solar also helps de-risk solar energy adoption for members. There are no installation charges or permits to secure, no insurance to buy or equipment to maintain. Instead, members commit to buying blocks of solar in 300-watt increments for set periods of time. The electricity generated is applied to that member’s consumption at their home, business or farm.

As a member-focused organization, Wabash Valley has sought input from its 23 co-ops since the outset of its community solar initiative. Some were very vocal about wanting to host an array in the initial phase. To make it equitable, a scoring metric was developed for the site selection process. The metric was largely dependent upon the availability and cost of land for a solar system. Ultimately, three members were selected for Phase I: Peru, Indiana; St. Genevieve, Missouri; and Paris, Illinois.

“We were very strategic in our selections and that included choosing sites that were visible to the local communities,” Horstman explains. “Peru’s site is next to co-op headquarters on a main road where people can stop and see it, get curious and hopefully buy-in.”

Because the community solar concept was new, Wabash Valley intentionally built fairly small solar arrays, each generating .54 megawatts of electricity. “We didn’t want to build a lot of solar without it being successful. We told the co-ops, if you want more we’ll build more,” Horstman says.

Solential Energy based in Carmel, Indiana, was chosen as Wabash Valley’s solar partner to design, build, and maintain the sites after a competitive bidding process. Phase 1 construction began March, 2017.

Without knowing what to expect, triggers were put on subscription sales so that when block capacity reached 50 percent, Wabash Valley would start looking for Phase 2 locations. At 75 percent sold, Phase 2 construction would begin. When Phase 1 sold quickly, site selection for Phase 2 began almost immediately with construction starting in December 2018. Solential was again selected as Wabash Valley’s solar partner.

“Solential was very responsive to our concerns and needs and really took the time to understand what we were looking for in these projects. They are great partners and have become my trusted solar advisors,” Horstman says.

Phase 2 was very different from the initial phase. The solar arrays were larger—Perryville, Illinois at .65 megawatts; LaOtto, Indiana at .96 megawatts;  and Wheatfield, Indiana at 3.45 megawatts. Phase 2 also had some distinct twists that generated a great deal of excitement. LaOtto and Wheatfield chose to install pollinator habitats under their solar arrays instead of grass. Wheatfield also landed a major partner, the Kankakee Valley School Corporation.

Pollinator habitats are another innovative trend in solar energy that Wabash Valley has an interest in.  It involves planting lower growing native grasses and wildflowers under the solar arrays. This lowers the cost of maintenance while providing much needed habitat to at-risk species such as honeybees and Monarch butterflies essential for pollinating row crops, orchards and gardens. These habitats also provide a home for bird and other small animals that play important roles in the ecosystem. For LaOtto, being in a more remote, rural location, the no-mow, pro-native flora and fauna pollinator habitat was an easy decision.

Wheatfield’s community solar project has a slightly different twist.

“Our community solar project in Wheatfield was unique from the others because of the involvement of the Kankakee Valley School Corporation. In addition to leasing us land next to their schools, they subscribed to a major portion of blocks so that they can power their school with green energy. Today, three of their schools get 40 percent of their power from the Co-op Solar program,” Horstman says.

“They also locked in their rate for 30 years so the school district enjoys lower, more predictable electricity costs. This was a very good scenario for everyone: Wabash Valley, Jasper County REMC, Kankakee Valley School Corporation, and community,” he adds.

Wheatfield’s pollinator habitat has another win; the school districts use it to support their STEM curriculum. It is a “living lab” for students studying solar energy as well biological sciences. Solential employs a local expert in pollinator habitats, Bluestem Acres, to maintain the Wheatfield and LaOtto sites.

As of September 2020, Wabash Valley’s community solar program has sold 47 percent of its capacity since going live in December 2017. They plan to scout new sites for the program, but in the meantime are purchasing the electricity of three new utility scale solar sites with a combined output of 400 megawatts.

Horstman believes Wabash Valley’s commitment to solar is the right path as solar energy continues to increase its reliability, predictability, efficiency, and affordability. “Our focus is meeting the needs of our  members, supporting sustainable communities while achieving greater rate predictability. So far, solar has made it easy for our co-op members to be green.”

If you have questions about community solar for rural electric cooperatives and how it removes the barriers to green solar power for businesses, farms and residential customers, I’d love to chat with you. Call or shoot a text to 317-627-4530 or email cmiller@solential.com.