Rural Electric Co-Ops Bring Solar Energy, Butterflies, and Resilience to the Midwest

Rural electric cooperatives supply power to 1 in 8 Americans, providing expansive rural areas with important connections to the energy grid. In recent years, many co-ops have increasingly adopted solar power. Not only is this renewable energy good for the environment, but it’s good for rural communities who get clean local energy at affordable prices.

At ELPC, we value these local leaders in renewable energy, so we work to highlight the efforts of outstanding electric co-ops in the Midwest. Be sure to check out our website RuralSolarStories.org for more photos, videos, and information.

What is an Electric Co-Op?

Co-op rural solar panels in a corn field
Co-op solar panels being installed in an Iowa corn field

The story of rural electric co-ops began in 1935, when the Roosevelt Administration introduced the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Created by an executive order, the REA aimed to bring electricity to rural areas by using a cooperative model. The REA encouraged farmers to join together to start electric co-ops, and provided low-interest loans to fund the construction of generation and distribution systems. At a time when very few rural areas had power, the introduction of electricity was life changing. By 1949, rural electric systems had doubled, the number of customers more than tripled, and the amount of power lines grew more than five times over.

There are two different types of co-op models: distribution and generation/transmission. The distribution co-ops provide retail local service and operate distribution lines. Also known as utility cooperatives, they are the primary point of contact for member-owners. Generation and transmission (G&T) cooperatives traditionally produce their own power and sell power at wholesale to their member cooperatives, and they own transmission lines. They are often referred to as a ‘co-operative of co-operatives,’ because they are comprised of different distribution co-ops. Both models adhere to the seven cooperative principles, which are shared by cooperatives around the world and ensure that the needs of their members are put first.

Electric co-ops have typically been associated with non-renewable types of energy, but that is quickly changing. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association reported that co-ops have increased renewable energy by 145% since 2010. Additionally, more than 90% of electric co-ops provide electricity from renewables like solar. Let’s check out a couple of these rural solar leaders:

Western Iowa Power Cooperative

WIPCO office with rural solar panels
Western Iowa Power Cooperative

Western Iowa Power Cooperative, or WIPCO, provides electricity to approximately 3,500 members, with a service area that spans 2,000 square miles and over 9 counties. The co-op installed their first of ten rural solar projects in 2015, and currently owns 2.5 MW of solar across their territory. But besides these innovative projects, their attentive leadership is what distinguishes them the most.

When first introducing the technology to the co-op, Executive VP and General Manager Jeff Bean and Director of Member Services Stephanie Wiese made it a priority to listen to their member’s needs and interests with solar. When members were unclear about how rural solar energy functioned, Wiese hosted a series of workshops explaining the many benefits of solar technology. The workshops were very well attended, by both co-op members and people outside the community.

WIPCO staff hosting a community presentation about rural solar
WIPCO community presentation

WIPCO offers several options for their solar program. Members can have onsite solar panels installed right on their own property, or participate in a community co-operative solar array, by subscribing to a panel that is installed elsewhere in the community. The recently introduced Renew-a-watt program, lasts for ten years and requires no upfront investment. Members simply add 1.5 cents to their current kilowatt hourly rate. Then WIPCO commits to installing the number of panels needed to cover the members’ energy usage. So far, this program has been very successful: in just three months, 800,000 kilowatt hours have been subscribed, which resulted in 1,800 solar panels.

Connexus Energy

The effects of rural solar go beyond providing more energy for a certain area; it can help strengthen the community, too. At Connexus Energy cooperative in Maple Grove, Minnesota, members decided to incorporate ground cover plants that attracted pollinators into their solar array. They partnered with a member owned company, Prairie Restoration, to do so. There are many advantages to using pollinator friendly plants: better storm water control, more likelihood of community acceptance and, of course, more pollinators. Pollinators are essential for growing many of our crops, contributing to one out of every three bites of food. The pollinator plants led to another local partnership with Bare Honey, a company based in Minneapolis, to install multiple beehives around the solar panels. Members came together to harvest the honey, and received a bit of the delicious bounty as thanks.

Connexus co-op members checking a beehive in front of rural solar panels
Connexus members check a beehive

Connexus offers two options to invest in solar energy through SolarWise, their community-based solar garden. Members can either buy panels and receive monthly credits for the energy their panels produce, or avoid the upfront costs and subscribe to the panels for a monthly fee instead. Moving forward, Connexus is looking to expand their solar capacity by adding more arrays, along with 15 MW of battery storage. They also installed eight electric vehicle charging stations outside of their headquarters, which help support EVs while increasing power sales.

Community Benefits

Besides significantly reducing co-op member’s energy expenses, solar technology has many other benefits, both for the economy and the community. A recent Forbes article found that nearly 3.3 million Americans work in clean energy, outnumbering fossil fuel by 3 to 1. The solar industry alone employs nearly 335,000 people, compared to the 211,000 working in coal mining or other fossil fuel extraction. Overall, clean energy employment grew 3.6% in 2016, and made up 4.2% of the total clean jobs added nationally in 2018.

pollinator-friendly flowers around connexus solar panels
Connexus pollinator-friendly solar

Combining solar technology with the co-op model has helped members to save on their electric bills and to strengthen their communities. The shift away from fossil fuels reduces associated air and water pollution, helping folks save on healthcare bills as well. At a time when rural residents, particularly Midwestern farmers, are facing more uncertainty due to heavy rainfall, flooding, and the inability to plant crops, rural solar co-ops are helping to provide the dependability everyone needs to keep the lights on.

Want to find more rural solar stories? Check out our website at RuralSolarStories.org

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