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Iowa solar installation

Move over wind? Solar energy market ‘exploding’ in Iowa

Move over wind? Solar energy market ‘exploding’ in Iowa

Workers install solar panels on a hog farm near Grinell, Iowa earlier this year. (Photo by Moxie Solar, used with permission)

Workers install solar panels on a hog farm near Grinnell, Iowa earlier this year. (Photo by Moxie Solar, used with permission)

Iowa is well established as a national leader in wind energy and biofuels. And now the state is poised for serious growth in solar as well.

“The market is exploding in Iowa,” says Tim Dwight, a former Iowa Hawkeye and NFL star who has become one of his home state’s most visible solar energy advocates.

Homeowners, farmers, businesses and at least one school district in Iowa are going solar. Also, over the past year, several municipal utilities and rural electric co-ops have put up solar arrays, inviting customers to buy a share of the power generated.

“Solar growth in Iowa is where wind was in the first decade of the 2000s,” says Bill Haman of  the Iowa Energy Center. “We saw an explosion in wind.”

In Frytown, just outside Iowa City, the Farmers Electric Cooperative has been steadily adding on to a community solar project established on its property in 2011. And a few weeks ago, the co-op announced plans to put together a 750-kilowatt solar farm, which would be the largest solar-energy project in the state. It’s projected to meet about 15 percent of the co-op’s demand for power.

In September, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities put an 18-kilowatt array on the roofs of several buildings at its headquarters in Ankeny.

And in November, several organizations snagged a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to streamline local permitting and zoning codes, and improve standards for connecting solar generation to the grid. The aim: to cut the time and costs of adding solar generation. State lawmakers who attended a recent solar tour have pledged to help.

Incentives high, costs low

Iowa’s solar capacity remains a tiny fraction of its overall energy mix — at the end of 2012 the state had only about 1 MW of solar installed compared to more than 5,000 MW of wind.

But the same market forces driving solar growth in other parts of the country are being felt in the heartland, too.

The biggest factor driving all of the fireworks, according to Haman, not surprisingly, is money.

“Incentives are at an all-time high, and costs are at an all-time low,” he said. The cost per watt is between $3 and $3.50 now, compared with a range of about $7 to $10 several years ago.

Systems typically pay for themselves within a decade now, given federal and state tax credits and, in much of central and eastern Iowa, a subsidy available to customers of Alliant Energy. A decade ago, Haman said, recouping the costs of a solar installation could take 30 to 50 years.

Haman says money is not the only factor, though. He said Iowans have been waking up to solar power – an observation shared by Warren McKenna, the general manager of the Farmers Electric Co-op.

Finding himself on sort of a solar-energy lecture circuit of late, McKenna gets to listen to lots of people. And he says they’ve been taking notice of solar panels in other places – Minnesota, Colorado, California — and have been pressing their utilities to get on board.

Traer Municipal Utilities installed a 40-kilowatt community solar project a few months ago, said manager Pat Stief. All 106 panels have been purchased by 42 customers. They paid $530 per panel, rated at 305 watts, and will see a credit on their monthly bill for 20 years.

The Hawkeye Rural Electric Cooperative in northeast Iowa intends to put 25 kilowatts of panels on its property in Cresco, and also will invite members to invest in a share of the power. Ted Kjos, manager of marketing and communications, is looking ahead to a possible second phase.

“We’ve done a survey of our membership. A significant amount of our membership is interested in the co-op providing this,” he said.

Utility incentives coming to an end

Solar in Iowa has gotten probably its greatest single boost from Alliant Energy. In 2008, when Alliant put together its efficiency plan, designed to outline efficiency efforts through 2013, it proposed to subsidize small, on-site renewable energy projects.

For the first few years, there were very few takers. But the story’s changed dramatically in the past year.

Haman, from the Iowa Energy Center, manages a state revolving loan fund that provides interest-free money to help people pay the upfront costs of installing renewable energy systems at their homes or businesses.

He said there’s been “a steep rise” this year in the number of people seeking loans for solar panels.

“They’ve all come in in this past quarter,” he said, and nearly all of them – at least 40 out of 45 solar projects that have been processed – are from within the Alliant territory.

Installer Michele Wei concurs that there’s been a mad dash of late.

Her business with Alliant picked up a little steam in 2012, but this year, she said, “It was like, ‘Oh boy – it’s ending!’”

The Decorah Community School District, interested in putting panels atop several schools, has scurried to get its application in before the program expires. Superintendent Michael Haluska said the district will start small – probably about 24 kilowatts atop three or four schools.

It would be just enough to “max out the Alliant rebate,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the opportunity for that rebate.”

And while there’s nothing like a deadline to organize the mind, several people familiar with solar matters in Iowa said that Alliant Energy could – and should – have made a greater effort to publicize the subsidy for on-site renewables, which it will be terminating as of Dec. 31. The utility claimed that not many people were taking advantage of it.

Haman suggested that might have been because Alliant’s effort to publicize it “wasn’t a very aggressive marketing campaign.”

Wei went a bit further, characterizing the solar rebate as a “best-kept secret. If you don’t go on their web site, you don’t know about it.”

Jennifer Easler, an attorney with the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate, said that an outside committee convened to review Alliant’s efficiency programs recommended “a stronger outreach effort.”

Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, said that the company routinely informs customers of efficiency benefits, like the on-site solar rebate, through articles in a company newsletter that goes out with monthly bills.

The network of solar dealers working in the state is “the best collection point” for getting such information out, he said.

But when Alliant has changed procedures and moved up deadlines, Wei said, the utility has failed to keep installers up to date.

“There’s a lack of knowledge that the rebate is out there,” said Dwight, who is president of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association. “There’s not very strong advocacy of solar from the utilities. They don’t do a good job of educating customers.”

Meanwhile, business remains brisk for installers like Wei.

“We (installed) seven systems in the last month,” she said. “That’s definitely much more than we did last year. Since April or May, we’ve been installing nonstop.”

In the Midwest, farmers leading the way on solar power

Installers say farms like this one in central Minnesota make ideal locations for solar arrays. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

Solar installations have been taking off in many areas of the Midwest, but perhaps nowhere more so than in farm country.

“It’s a huge buzz now throughout the agriculture industry,” said Todd Miller, sales director for CB Solar in Ankeny, Iowa.

In Washington County, Iowa, for example, farmers with access to an unusual and lucrative combination of federal, state and utility incentives were anticipating payback periods of as little as two years, according to Ed Raber, director of the county’s economic development corporation.

Consequently, he said, “There are more solar panels in Washington County than in any other county in Iowa.”

The heat in Washington County, just south of Iowa City, has dissipated a bit, largely because the local utility – Alliant Energy – terminated its subsidy as of Dec. 31. However, solar panels continue to make inroads on farms in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest.

‘A ripple effect’

In Ohio, EcoJiva Solar has seen growing interest from farmers since its founding six years ago, according to sales director Jess Ennis. Of the more than 100 systems the company has installed, he said, the vast majority have been on farms.

At the outset, the company envisioned bringing solar energy to manufacturers, he said, but they were too financially squeezed for a big capital investment. Agriculture, on the other hand, was thriving – and quite receptive to the idea of going solar.

Take, for example, the panels that EcoJiva installed on a farm outside of Huron, Ohio.

“Within several months,” Ennis said, “we developed three systems north and south of there. Within a three-mile stretch of road, we now have four systems.

“Generally speaking, when we install a system, it creates a ripple effect.”

Minnesota installer Curt Shellum also has found that, in farm country, solar arrays tend to breed more solar arrays.

“You get systems out there, people see them and drop by,” he said. In the agricultural region of southeast Minnesota, where he does most of his work, Shellum said, demand among farmers “is definitely growing for us. We’ve done maybe a dozen installs. In the last month, we’ve done enough farm proposals to equal the number of kilowatts we installed last year.”

In Illinois, solar developer Michelle Marley agrees that word of mouth is important.

“It’s just now starting to get a foothold,” she said. “The greatest obstacle is getting the word out.”

A long-term investment

Solar panels are a natural fit on a farm, a few installers observed. Shellum said that, for several reasons, they’re his “favorite type of installation.”

For one, farms tend to use a lot of power, with monthly electric bills sometimes running into the thousands of dollars. They need electricity to run fans, to heat and cool barns for dairy cows, to cool milk and produce, to dry grain and move it around.

Many farms also have barns with roofs that lend themselves to holding up solar panels. And if there’s not a suitable roof, there’s usually plenty of space for a freestanding array.

In addition, farmers are accustomed to thinking long-term and investing in their business. Many of them have maintained the farm in their family for generations, and expect it to continue as a family-owned enterprise that will reap the benefits of investment in solar energy for decades to come.

And they tend to be an independent lot who like the prospect of producing their own power.

Like Tim Ridgely, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat along with his son in central Illinois. In 2012, the Ridgelys put up a 17 kilowatt system in a field by their house and cut the electricity bill by about 40 percent, according to Tim Ridgely. Then, in 2013, they added 22 kilowatts, at a cost of 59 cents per watt after accounting for all credits, grants and subsidies they received.

Although he won’t have the full picture until next summer, Ridgely said, “We hope to be close to self-sufficient.”

Phil Rich had five systems totaling 110 kilowatts installed last spring on his farm in Washington County, Iowa. He’d purchased some used wind turbines earlier, and found they were costly and not as productive as he’d anticipated. His solar panels have been quite a different story.

“My last electric bill – and I did a lot of welding – was $600,” he said a couple months ago. “And normally it would be around $1,500 to $2,000.”

Subsidies a key factor

Michelle Wei, the installer who put panels up at Phil Rich’s farm and at numerous others in Washington and Henry counties, said many of her customers tried wind energy, and then opted to try solar.

Regardless of the technology, she said, “farmers are really interested in renewable energy.”

“We try to do things that are environmentally friendly,” said Linda Gent, who had three systems totaling 96 kilowatts installed on her house and two hog units in Wellman, Iowa. But there’s no denying that subsidies played into her decision to go ahead, she said.

Alliant Energy’s benefit covered about 25 percent of the cost, she said. State and federal tax credits lightened the burden on her even further. Many Midwestern farmers also have tapped into the a USDA grant (Rural Energy for American Program) that can cover up to 25 percent of a project’s cost.

“When you put it all together, it makes great financial sense,” said Illinois developer Marley.

Without quite so much financial encouragement, Gent said, “We would have had to give it more thought.”