Solar project with $1.3 million battery is a big step forward for Nebraska

Source: By Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2020

Money may not grow on trees, but it can come from the sun.

The state’s largest community solar farm will be built next year in Norfolk, and it will be the second such facility to generate electricity below the rate the partner cities are paying Nebraska Public Power District for conventional electricity.

Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning said the wholesale price of electricity from the solar farm is expected to be 25% to 30% less than the wholesale price NPPD charges Norfolk.

Much of that savings will be passed on to customers who participate in the solar program.

“We’re excited. This offers our citizens an opportunity to lower their energy bills and utilize clean, renewable energy that’s produced in our own backyard,” Moenning said. “For renewables in general, the moment is now. Nebraska has a lot of potential to be an energy producer.”

Community solar is a moderately sized project that saves individuals the upfront cost of putting solar panels on their homes while providing them access to solar power through a jointly built endeavor. The sites are much smaller than utility scale solar farms that serve an entire region. The first such project in Nebraska is in the works at Omaha Public Power District.

Nebraska utilities have been partnering with communities to build local solar farms. The Norfolk solar farm is a project of the City of Norfolk, NPPD and three companies collaborating under the umbrella of N Solar: Mesner Development Co., GenPro Energy Solutions and Sol Systems.

Wind developer Cliff Mesner of Mesner Development in Central City said this is the second NPPD community solar project to generate electricity below the utility’s wholesale rates. The first was a smaller facility in Scottsbluff.

“We’re actually selling electricity that’s cheaper than people are paying for their fossil fuels,” he said.

That doesn’t mean NPPD has plans to abandon traditional sources of electricity because the utility has fixed costs with its existing power plants. And, it needs a fuel source that’s available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. For now, that remains traditional fuels like coal and nuclear.

But the Norfolk solar farm is big news in that sense, too. It will be NPPD’s first solar project to include a battery for storage, said David Rich, director of sustainability. Battery storage is essential for solar energy to be a reliable source of electricity, rather than something that’s available only when the sun is shining.

Rich said the purpose of the battery on this project will be as a learning tool, and for that reason and because of cost, the battery’s capacity is a fraction of the total output of the solar farm.

NPPD staff will use this solar farm to familiarize themselves with battery-based power as they send its stored electricity into the grid at different times and for different purposes. This small-step approach is similar to how NPPD started with wind power, installing first a few turbines and later expanding to large-scale wind.

“We’re doing it to learn and then share our knowledge,” with other Nebraska utilities, Rich said.

The battery’s approximately $1.3 million cost was underwritten in part by a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Rich said. The cost of the solar farm itself is not public as it is being developed and built by the businesses that comprise N Solar.

Mesner said the day is coming when battery storage will be affordable in Nebraska, which would make solar power far more reliable.

“It’s a function of economics, not technology,” he said. “Batteries are going to change things pretty dramatically.”

Nebraska has high potential for solar energy but lags in tapping the sun. Nationally, Nebraska ranks 13th for solar potential, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, but 39th in solar use, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Norfolk’s solar farm will be able to generate 8.5 megawatts, an amount that typically would power 1,250 homes, Rich said. However, because it won’t be able to generate that much power 24/7, its actual impact will be less than that. Construction is expected to start in the spring, and electricity should be flowing by fall 2021, Moenning said.

Norfolk is the fourth Nebraska community to be part of NPPD’s community solar program. Others are: a 5.7-megawatt project in Kearney; 4.5 megawatts, total, at two sites in Scottsbluff; and a fraction of a megawatt facility at Venango. Other NPPD projects are planned, including at a 3.2-megawatt farm at York and a 0.5-megawatt site at Ainsworth.

The Omaha Public Power District has a 5-megawatt community solar farm in Washington County.