Midwest Energy News: ELPC’s Mandelbaum Discusses Open Door to More Net Metering

Net metering will be available to more electricity customers in Iowa as a result of a decision made on Tuesday by state regulators.

As part of a long-running discussion about distributed generation, the Iowa Utilities Board ruled that the state’s two major utilities – MidAmerican and Alliant Energy – must increase their net metering cap from 500 kilowatts to 1 megawatt. Also, the new tariffs will have to make net metering available to all classes of customers but will change some rules for compensation.

“They’ve left the structure of net metering in place, and focused on how to expand that in a very narrow way that is on the whole positive,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in Des Moines with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “They didn’t invite any of the changes you’ve seen in the utility pilot project. They could have, but they kept the pilot projects separate, and to me, that is a positive.”

As part of the board’s distributed-generation docket, the board last October asked MidAmerican and Alliant to submit pilot projects to encourage the development of distributed generation in the state. For the most part, the utilities did the opposite: proposing rate changes that would penalize solar customers.

The new rules regarding net metering will be adopted on a temporary basis. At the end of three years, the board will assess the experiment and decide whether to make the changes permanent. Customers of the two utilities who currently have solar panels can choose to continue in their current net metering arrangement, or can opt to try the new net metering tariff. Those choosing the new tariff may not return to the former tariff.

Any customer installing solar panels after the new tariffs are adopted will be required to operate under the new rules. Under existing rules, net meterers can roll over excess credits indefinitely, to be applied against future bills. There is no option for trading credits for cash.

The new tariffs will institute a yearly true-up. Early in the year, excess credits will be removed from the books, compensated at the avoided-cost rate and the proceeds divided in two: half will go to a utility fund to aid low-income customers, and half will return to the customer.

Although he praised the board’s directive overall, Mandelbaum said the cashout piece “could potentially be losses and gains. I don’t think the cashout is going to make much difference on most projects, but there is some potential for it to impact some projects.”

The ruling will eliminate any incentive a solar customer might have felt to overproduce. The increased cap of 1 megawatt will apply only up to 100 percent of the solar customer’s load. And while the new rules will extend net metering to a couple of groups of customers who are currently excluded, the rules stipulate that each customer’s generation will only offset the energy charge and will not apply to demand or customer charges.

One class that now will gain access is customers who obtain solar power through third-party power-purchase agreements or lease arrangements. After a customer filed a complaint, Alliant changed its policy a year ago to allow third-party customers – generally public and non-profit entities – to net meter. While Alliant extended net metering to that group, MidAmerican did not, according to Mandelbaum. The ruling made yesterday requires that MidAmerican adopt the same standard.

The other class that now will be able to net meter is the large general service category, such as manufacturing plants and wastewater-treatment facilities. Barry Shear, a solar developer in Iowa, went to the utilities board because Alliant’s policy stymied one city’s attempt to install a solar array at its water treatment plant.

Although the new rules will allow large general service customers to net meter, the presence of a large demand fee as part of their bill may continue to interfere with the economics of net metering.

The board’s Tuesday ruling did something else: it seemed to bypass much of the pilot projects that Alliant and MidAmerican submitted in March. Although the board instructed the utilities to devise pilot projects that would experiment with ways to expand rooftop solar, clean-energy supporters in the state mostly viewed the pilots as designed to discourage people from generating their own power. Alliant proposed paying less to solar customers, and MidAmerican suggested imposing a demand charge on them. Both of them, however, also said they wanted to experiment with community solar.

The message in Tuesday’s ruling, as Mandelbaum sees it, was, “You can continue working on community solar projects,” he said, “The rate-design pilots – it essentially rejects those.”

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Brad Klein Talks To Midwest Energy News: Good News For Rural Solar In Minnesota

By Frank Jossi, Midwest Energy News

Minnesota’s rural distributed generation customers won a major victory this week when state regulators halted the practice by cooperatives of applying fixed charges for solar installations.

Regulators ruled June 9 that cooperatives must file requests for small power production tariffs with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which makes the final determination on those fees. The commission ruled those fees must now be suspended until an investigation is completed.

Rural cooperatives lost their argument that the PUC had no jurisdiction in the matter of fixed charges for solar customers. Co-ops believed their boards would be the final arbiters of those charges.

“It’s a victory for good government and for good process,” said Brad Klein, an attorney for the Environmental Policy & Law Center. “This is an unusually strong statement from commissioners who saw that distributed generation customers don’t have a strong voice on the boards of directors of these co-ops.”

Attorney and Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association development director David Shaffer represented two individuals who had brought complaints against their rural co-ops over the fees. “It was a near perfect decision for us,” he said. “We pretty much got everything we wanted.”

Jim Horan, legal counsel of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, said the decision “was not unexpected.” MREA had believed ratemaking was more the purview of their boards and not the PUC, but the investigation the commission has ordered will seek to clarity those roles, he said.

The issue of extra fees being added to solar customers’ bills has become common throughout the country and in the Midwest. The rationale has been the fees cover the fixed cost of serving solar customers, but others argue they fail to account for benefits that distributed solar provides for the grid.

“We believe these types of proposals are motivated by a desire to chill and block distributed generation,” Shaffer said.

Last year the Minnesota legislature passed a law allowing co-ops to charge fees for distributed generation customers as long as they were “reasonable” and based on a cost-of-service study.

Since then 14 co-ops have added monthly fees ranging from $13 to $83. “That has chilled the market in coop territories,” he said.

The current case involved complaints about fixed charge fees by customers of Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association and Minnesota Valley Cooperative Light & Power Association.

The ELPC and Fresh Energy, publisher of Midwest Energy News, filed a separate complaint that, in essence, argued that fixed fees were not appropriately filed and that co-ops shouldn’t be allowed to charge them.

The co-ops were represented by the MREA. The organization had instructed members to use a cost-of-service study approach which emphasized income lost from a solar customer rather than the actual cost of having distributed generation on the grid, Shaffer said.

The methodology used is more like “a lost revenue model,” he said. “It’s not how expensive it is to facilitate someone getting on the grid.”

The co-ops took no benefits of solar into account in their cost-of-service studies, he said. The PUC has accepted a “value of solar” study  by the Department of Commerce which reveals solar has a net benefit, and therefore distributed generation customers should pay little or nothing to utilities, Shaffer said.

Before the state law passed last year, co-ops charged solar customers anywhere from $2.65 to $5 a month. The state’s investor owned utilities charge from $5 to $10 a month, Shaffer said.

The PUC opened a docket to look at the fees charged by 14 co-ops, and allowed other co-ops to join in. The commission will look at the fixed charge methodology being used and compare it to the statute, which calls for “fixed costs” to be front and center.

“There’s no inherent right of a utility to collect a certain amount of revenue from a customer,” he said. “We certainly believe customers should pay their fair share of the cost of connecting to the grid.”

Co-ops will have to submit data and allow for people to review it, Klein noted. The benefits of solar will have to be included, too, he said.

MREA’s Horan argues co-ops are “at cost providers” without a revenue component that goes to investors. If the cost of service is $45 a month, that’s what the co-op needs to collect from all customers, not just those with solar, he said.

When MREA developed the methodology, clean energy advocates were consulted, he said. “We didn’t get a lot of specific feedback,” Horan said. “We’d be open to suggestions on other ways to do this.”

The benefit of solar is different for distribution co-ops. The value at this point is no higher than what the coops pay now for energy, Horan said, and because their grids cover great distances and have little density even small amounts of distributed energy can be impactful.

One part of the case remains unclear. Meeker Cooperative argued that the complaint brought by Keith Weber over fixed charges was in “bad faith” and “frivolous.” Had the commission ruled against him, he would have had to pay the utility’s attorney fees.

“We were concerned more broadly that if this was how co-ops would respond to customer complaints they would be afraid to come forward and contest these fees,” Klein said.

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Herald & Review: Solar Advocates Wary of Nuclear Power Bill

By Dan Petrella, Herald & Review

St. Louis-based StraightUp Solar opened a branch in Bloomington about a year and a half ago as part an effort to grow its business in Illinois.

But the company, which installs solar power systems for residential, commercial and nonprofit customers, is worried that legislation under consideration in the General Assembly would stall the growth of the fledgling industry in the state, said Shannon Fulton, StraightUp Solar’s director of business development and president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association.

Exelon Corp.’s “Next Generation Power Plan” is intended, in part, to save its financially struggling nuclear plants in Clinton and near the Quad-Cities. Exelon has said it will shut down the Clinton Power Station on June 1, 2017, “if adequate legislation is not passed that properly values nuclear power for its economic, environmental and reliability benefits during the spring Illinois legislative session scheduled to end May 31.”

But solar advocates say the bill, which is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing today, would make changes to rate structures for customers of Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison that would undermine the financial viability of their industry.

“Within this bill there are some poison pills that are unprecedented,” said Amy Heart, a senior public policy manager for The Alliance for Solar Choice.

The industry has focused its criticisms on two components of the proposal.

The first is a change in the way customers are charged to cover ComEd’s costs for distributing power. Currently, residential customers of the Northern Illinois utility are charged per kilowatt-hour, but the proposal would shift to a “demand charge,” which would be assessed based on each customer’s peak usage during the month.

“This changes the fundamental way that we interact with our energy,” Heart said, adding that customers’ bills could vary widely from month to month.

For StraightUp Solar and companies like it, that would mean more difficulty estimating whether installing rooftop solar panels would pay off for people in ComEd territory, Fulton said.

“It does infuse uncertainty and variability in our ability to really, truly know what the financial value of solar will be for a customer,” she said.

The proposal has also drawn criticism from Attorney General Lisa Madigan and AARP Illinois, who have expressed concerns about the broader impact on customers’ power bills.

ComEd executive say a majority of customers would actually see a decrease in the electricity distribution charge on their power bills.

That includes more than 70 percent of low-income customers, said Val Jensen, senior vice president of customer operations.

“More people will benefit from this,” he said, adding that the majority of those who do pay more will see an increase of less than $3.

The second issue, perhaps of greater concern to solar companies, is a proposed change to the way customers with solar panels on their roofs are reimbursed for the excess power they generate.

As it stands, they receive credit on their power bills for surplus energy, which is sent out to other customers on the electric grid, at the retail rate a customer would be charged for using that power. The legislation would change this to the lower wholesale rate.

Fulton said the current “net metering” structure helps customers recoup the cost of installing solar systems, which typically runs “well under $10,000” after accounting for state and federal incentives.

“Net metering benefits exist for the entire life of the system,” she said.

Heart said that it wouldn’t be fair for ComEd to turn around and sell solar energy generated on someone’s rooftop to other customers at a profit.

The state needs an in-depth study of these issues before moving forward, she said.

ComEd officials say the changes to net metering are needed to cover the cost of distributing power to solar customers at times when they’re drawing more power than their rooftop panels are producing.

They also argue that their proposal would jump-start the nascent industry by creating new rebates for customers who install solar panels and investing $140 million in the purchase of renewable energy credits from solar developers.

“We are pro-solar,” said Fidel Marquez, senior vice president of governmental and community affairs. “We are pro-energy efficiency.”

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Learner on WGN: What’s with the Illinois energy bill proposals?

Howard Learner, President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, joins Justin to talk about Exelon and ComEd backing a new energy bill in Illinois and what we need to do to find a solution to water contamination. Check out the audio recording on WGN’s website.


Crain’s Chicago Business: Oops! Exelon’s compromise energy bill nearly zeroes out green-power funding

When Exelon last week unveiled its new plan to preserve two Illinois nuclear plants in danger of closure, the company touted concessions to its traditional environmentalist adversaries, including $140 million in spending annually on new solar power projects in the state.

But when green groups and renewable power companies read the actual language of Exelon’s bill a few days later, it turned out the measure would only generate about $7 million a year. That would effectively kill Illinois’ clean-energy law, which has a goal of gradually boosting the state’s reliance on wind, solar and other renewable electricity sources over time.

Exelon acknowledged what environmentalists said about the bill language. But the company said that wasn’t its intention and maintained a drafting error was to blame.

The error, Exelon said in a statement, “already has been fixed to ensure all of (the bill’s) intended benefits, which include $140 million in new funding for solar, solar rebates for customers and increased energy efficiency, are fully included. The reality is that changes to legislative language are a normal part of the process to make corrections and incorporate negotiated changes into a pending bill, and we have submitted an amendment to correct the error.”

Not everyone in the green camp accepted the Chicago-based power-generation giant’s explanation.

And at the very least, the mistake exacerbates the lack of trust some enviros have in the intentions and word of a company that carries far more clout in Springfield on energy issues than any other company or organization in Illinois.

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Huffington Post: ELPC’s Learner Discusses Making A Greener Chicago

By Howard Learner

Chicago is becoming a “greener city,” but let’s recognize some key challenges and the need for solutions moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. This Earth Day, we should be proud of what Chicago has accomplished and candid about some important environmental challenges still requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,842 megawatts today. A decade ago, who thought that Illinois would become No. 5 in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 11 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Next Steps: Illinois policymakers should say “no” to Exelon’s opposition and finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard, which helps drive wind power development. Let’s make it work well and advance Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market.

Solar Energy can be our next boom. The city and county are advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving — think about other rapid technological advances in smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds — and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology, especially combined with battery technology improvements. It can succeed by installations on residential rooftops and commercial buildings’ spacious flat roofs, and can transform underutilized industrial brownfields into “solar brightfields” in Chicago.

Next Steps: Let’s seize the opportunities to accelerate solar energy by better using Chicago’s many flat rooftops on commercial, industrial and multifamily residential buildings for solar photovoltaic panel installations producing clean electricity? First, the Illinois Commerce Commission should remove regulatory barriers that protect monopoly utilities from competition. Second, the Commission and state legislators should adopt policies that better enable community solar projects for local businesses and neighborhood residents to join together in sharing clean energy resources. Third, if Argonne National Labs’ engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost, that’s a game changer.

Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago’s economy. There’s a quiet revolution occurring with more energy efficient lighting, appliances, cooling and heating equipment, pumps and motors, and other technologies. Commonwealth Edison reports that electricity sales declined (-1.5 percent) in 2015 in Northern Illinois while the Chicago regional economy grew 2.5 – 3.0 percent. Chicago’s economy is growing, more efficiently.

Next Steps: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits through job-creating retrofits that can reduce electricity and natural gas bills. Electricity waste costs businesses and people money and drains dollars out of the Chicago economy for the part of the utility bills spent on out-of-town uranium, coal and gas fuels. Let’s save money, boost our economy, create more installation jobs and reduce pollution. That’s a winner.

Public Transit: Chicagoans are driving less with fewer cars, but Chicago can’t be a greener “city that works” unless CTA is modernized. Chicago is looking to both innovative financing and new transportation approaches, including Bus Rapid Transit and Divvy bikes, in addition to upgrading the aging Red Line and other transit lines.

Next Steps: Let’s face it — no good public transit, no green city. Chicago’s public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services. CTA is working on it. Mayor Emanuel, Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Congressmen Lipinski and Quigley are working hard to gain more federal funds for CTA modernization. That’s a priority and necessity.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and the mid-sized cities in-between. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.

Next Steps: Modernize Union Station so it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let’s accelerate high-speed rail development here.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama Administration’s investment of about $2 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities, building green infrastructure, and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Next Steps: Water efficiency is more than 20 years behind energy efficiency. We can’t afford to waste fresh water that the rest of the world craves and values highly. Let’s make Chicago a water efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities. Let’s also figure out savvy ways of using lower-cost greywater for industrial processes and save fresh water for drinking supply.

Chicago River: It’s our namesake river and should be a gem increasing recreational enjoyment and property values for all. There’s progress as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) finally begins to disinfect its wastewater. The Chicago River, however, is still not “fishable and swimmable,” and there’s more cleanup to be done.

Next Steps: The new Chicago Riverwalk and river-focused development on both the north and south sides highlights and builds support for the importance of cleaning up the river as a safe place for recreational use and community enjoyment. MWRD should continue to step up its pollution reduction actions and equipment investments that pay off in clean water benefits for all.

Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of our progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community that works for all.

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EnergyWire: Hope for solar awakening in Chicago runs into utility backlash

Nearly a decade after the Illinois Legislature adopted a provision enabling development of community solar projects, not a single megawatt exists in areas served by investor-owned utilities.

For that reason, Illinois regulators spent more than two years taking a second look at the law. And last fall, they went ahead and approved a rule meant to boost solar development — including projects that could be shared by apartment dwellers and high-rise occupants in Chicago who don’t own a roof for solar panels.

But in Springfield, where lobbyists for the utilities roam the wide Capitol corridors, Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison Co. and St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. have pushed legislators to block the changes, arguing that the rule would create unfair subsidies borne by their customers. For their part, solar advocates warn that if the state’s major electric utilities get their way, it will mean a setback for the state’s nascent solar market.

“The utilities are aggressively trying to kill this,” said Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Chicago-based Environmental Policy & Law Center. “They continue to dig in their heels and oppose anything from getting started.”

The Illinois Commerce Commission’s rule adopted Nov. 12 has support not only from clean energy groups, but also from the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, the Citizens Utility Board, the city of Chicago and others.

On Tuesday, the rule goes before the 12-member Illinois Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The obscure, bipartisan committee is tasked with ensuring that administrative rules are consistent with legislative intent.

Illinois’ original net-metering law goes back to 2007. The agreements, which allow the owners of small solar systems to receive credits for the excess energy they produce and return to the grid, are essential to the economics of small, customer-owned solar projects. Credits can be carried for months and help offset charges when the systems don’t produce enough energy to meet demand.

The 2007 law included a provision for so-called meter aggregation to enable participation by renters and condo owners to take part in projects and tap the benefits of solar energy in the same way as individual homeowners with rooftop systems.

Community solar — a concept gaining popularity in other Midwestern states like Minnesota, where hundreds of megawatts are being developed — is viewed as an increasingly important option for people in Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of energy consumers don’t own their rooftops.

The concept could also be appealing to cities and counties across the state, many of which have taken advantage of a state law enabling municipalities to pool their electric load and shop for lower electricity prices. Some cities have chosen “green” power programs, but those programs frequently rely on the purchase of renewable energy credits from out-of-state wind farms.

Costs vs. benefits

Illinois initial net-metering law put a cap on total participation in net-metering programs at 1 percent of utility peak load. ComEd agreed to raise the cap to 5 percent of peak load in an effort to win support for a bill it pushed to overhaul how rates are set and paved the way for billions of dollars in spending for grid modernization and smart meters.

Among other benefits, ComEd said the grid investments would help enable more distributed generation.

Years later, however, fewer than 500 customers in ComEd’s northern Illinois service area — a group representing less than one-tenth of a percent of the utility’s peak load — have net-metering agreements.

Renewable energy supporters say among the reasons why solar has yet to take off in Illinois are the barriers prohibiting development of community solar projects.

In its unanimous Nov. 12 order, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) agreed that changes to the net-metering rule were needed. The rule requires utilities to provide “virtual net metering” credits for customers who subscribe to a community solar project developed by other electric suppliers.

It would also require energy suppliers to consider net-metering applications individually and provide written explanations within 30 days if it rejects them.

In approving the change, the commission didn’t buy utility arguments about subsidies. “To essentially ignore these applications based upon a blanket policy of disallowing meter aggregation, without explanation, distorts the purpose of [the law] and is fundamentally unfair to customers,” ICC said.

It is unclear whether meter aggregation increases costs for utility customers, ICC said. What’s more, ICC said, it is unclear whether it “outweighs the potential benefits” of aggregation.

Commissioner Miguel del Valle went further. The pushback from ComEd runs counter to statements by the utility’s chief executive, Anne Pramaggiore, who said consumers should be provided expanded choices and more clean energy solutions.

“Yet ComEd’s position in this docket was to block this clean energy option and customer choice,” del Valle said, according to minutes of the meeting. “The company’s reasons for trying to reject the ability for anyone to participate in these programs are vague, unsupported by any evidence and seem to fundamentally misunderstand the benefits of distributed generation.”

Net metering on trial

A key issue raised by the utilities is who is the appropriate party to approve meter aggregation agreements.

In letters to JCAR, the utilities maintain that changes approved by ICC go too far in giving that power to competing electric suppliers. The utilities say they, the managers of the local delivery grid, should have the final word.

What’s more, ComEd argues that there’s an important distinction between a solar array mounted on the rooftop of a home and a community solar project that serves a multi-unit apartment building and still relies fully on the distribution grid.

“Consequently, there is no reasonable basis to offer such a customer a credit for ‘avoided’ delivery service use,” ComEd said in its letter to the legislative committee.

ComEd said in a statement to EnergyWire yesterday, “We are committed to integrating renewable energy sources, including responsible and equitable solar, into Illinois’ existing energy system.”

The Illinois Competitive Energy Association, which represents alternative electric suppliers, also raised concerns in a letter to JCAR. While the group supports meter aggregation, it has concerns about how the agreements are implemented and filed briefs with the commission supporting the utilities’ position.

Solar advocates, meanwhile, say the utilities’ argument ignores the benefits to the grid, and that net metering for community solar projects should work the same as it does for individual customers. Giving utilities broad discretion to veto projects goes against what lawmakers originally intended, they said.

“They are really trying to put net metering on trial,” Klein said. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a broader conversation about net metering. But that’s not the appropriate role for the commission. They’re not there to make new policy.”

The Illinois solar industry believes there’s ample pent-up demand among Illinois customers and solar developers that are waiting to pursue projects once they can take advantage of the state’s net-metering law.

For instance, the city and Cook County were selected by U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative last year for a $1.2 million grant to pursue community solar pilot projects and make community solar available to 30,000 people in the area within the next eight years.

“There are a lot of great pilot sites that are ready to go and move forward,” Klein said. “This new rule could be a vehicle for translating that interest and enthusiasm into some real projects.”

Bloomberg: Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.

The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.

The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Press Release: Iowa Electric Co-op Sets Standard for Rural Solar

Contact: Katie Coleman, (312) 795-3710

Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops
Announcement Sets New Iowa Record for Solar from Rural Electric Co-ops

Iowa’s Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) and its member cooperatives announced a major investment in solar energy today, unveiling plans to build 5.5 megawatts of new solar energy at six locations across its service territory. This will be Iowa’s largest solar project from a rural electric co-op, and it represents a 20% increase in Iowa’s total solar capacity (27 MW as of 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association).

CIPCO is Iowa’s largest cooperative energy provider, serving nearly 300,000 residents and about 12,000 commercial/industrial accounts in its 300-mile territory stretching diagonally across Iowa and touching Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The announced projects will be built by Azimuth Energy LLC of St. Louis, MO.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Iowa installed a total of 6 MW of solar energy in 2015.  That means this project alone is just shy of that annual total.

“CIPCO has taken a great step forward in providing their members access to solar energy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Staff Attorney of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines. “CIPCO was clear that this effort is just the first phase of the rural electric cooperative’s long-term plan to incorporate solar as an additional pollution-free resource within its energy portfolio.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the CIPCO announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”

To learn more about the CIPCO announcement visit:

Inside Climate News: ELPC’s Brad Klein Speaks on Solar Market’s Tipping Point

By Zahra Hirji, Inside Climate News

How low-income families can get access to affordable solar power is a question communities nationwide are increasingly confronting. New solar policy guidelines released last week begin to deliver answers.

For the first time, a national overview is available via the “Low-Income Solar Policy Guide,” jointly produced by the nonprofit groups GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar and the Center for Social Inclusion. It explains the myriad challenges, benefits and opportunities for low-income families who go solar.

Policymakers, nonprofits, companies and community organizers are all looking for ways to improve solar access, said one of the report’s authors, Sean Garren, a regional manager at Vote Solar. “We pulled together the guide to try to catch this wave of interest and provide them the resources they need to turn it into concrete expanded access in low-income communities,” he said.

But even as solar is expanding and getting cheaper, few options for buying or leasing solar panels are affordable for low-income families, Stan Greschner, vice president of government relations and market development at GRID Alternatives, told InsideClimate News.

“The number one issue is cost,” said Greschner, noting that families don’t have $15,000 to drop on a solar panel investment, or even the smaller deposits needed for leasing or renting panels. They also probably don’t have strong enough credit to qualify them for such programs.

Last year, more than 7 gigawatts of new solar capacity was installed in the United States and experts expect far more solar will come online in 2016. At the same time, solar costs are plunging. For example, the average installed price for residential solar systems dropped 9 percent between 2013 and 2014.

According to the guide, the key is to develop policies and programs that target low-income families living in single-family homes and multi-family homes, as well as renters.

States that are already tackling the access issue include California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. For example, California has a policy to provide solar installations on the roofs of single-family and multi-family homes at no up-front cost to the users.

Meanwhile, Colorado has a program that ensures some low-income families can benefit from receiving solar power—and the related energy savings—from shared community solar arrays.

“Shared renewable energy is a nascent market” said Sara Baldwin Auck, regulatory program director at Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Shared solar is growing rapidly and much more is anticipated, she said, and many states are in the process of passing new policies and programs to take advantage of it. Last week, IREC released their own solar policy guide for low- and moderate- income families focused specifically on shared solar.

All of the programs designed to expand solar access offer customers savings on their electric bills, but some go a step farther—providing solar-related job training and career opportunities. It’s important for many of the participating communities that these programs not be thought of as a handout, said Greschner, who added, “they want it to be part of the community and run by the community.”

“We are … close to a tipping point,” Bradley Klein, senior attorney at the Illinois-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, told InsideClimate News. “As the cost of solar continues to fall, and we have these new models that we are testing and experimenting with and learning from, this is really the point where we can take this to scale and replicate some of these programs at much larger levels.”

Klein also said the report can help counter the attacks, often led by utilities, on pro-solar policies currently taking place in many states. In Nevada, for example, state regulators decided to gradually reduce a major solar credit called net metering, as well as increase rates specifically for solar customers. The regulatory review was prompted by a request by utility NV Energy to change the state’s solar policies.

“We often hear this false narrative about solar, particularly from some utilities, that solar is really only for wealthy people and it’s not available for all,” said Klein.

Moreover, utilities such as those in Nevada are pushing the idea that solar is hurting non-solar customers, especially low-income customers.

“It’s really not the case,” said Klein. “In fact by creating a strong, stable market for solar you provide opportunities for all customers to begin taking more control of their electricity bills, to participate in a clean energy economy, and help create jobs in their communities…. This report is so valuable to counter that false narrative with real information about how solar really provides great opportunities for everybody.”

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