Solar is booming at rural co-ops — report

Source: David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 20, 2018

Rural electric cooperatives are turning on record amounts of solar power, making customers of people who usually wouldn’t consider buying renewable energy.

The trend was the subject of a report released by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which represents more than 42 million electric customers across the country.

Half of the country’s 900-plus co-ops now have a solar offering. “The electric cooperative solar landscape is dramatically transformed,” the study said.

Since 2013, the solar capacity of co-ops has grown by a factor of nine. Starting with a capacity of 94 megawatts, cooperatives’ solar grew to 868 MW last year, and by the end of next year could exceed a gigawatt. That’s enough power to supply 200,000 homes.

It is a phenomenon with political implications. Co-op solar programs are often the first exposure to solar for many in rural counties that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential contest (Energywire, Sept. 6, 2017).

A combination of factors is accelerating solar uptake, the report said. Prices sank from $4.50 per watt four years ago to about $1.25 per watt at the end of last year.

At the same time, generation and transmission (G&T) co-ops, which make and deliver electricity to their member co-ops, have embraced solar and made it easier for their members to buy in. This year, 77 percent of co-op solar projects are being built by G&Ts, up from a small fraction several years ago.

The same sort of phenomenon, writ small, is happening at individual co-ops. A relatively new way of organizing solar purchasing — community solar — has taken off. Community solar arrays are built by the co-op, and its shares are purchased by members and the electric output deducted from their electricity bills.

NRECA also credited its own training program. With its members, it has written field manuals and business process guides and offered financial advice.

While multiplying, solar projects have also grown larger.

Since 2014, the size of an average project has exploded from 25 kilowatts to 1 MW or more.