WIPCO solar panel array open house

Visitors to WIPCO’s Denison facility had a look at the cooperative’s first solar panel array at the WIPCO open house in June 2015. The cooperative currently generates about 750 kW from three solar arrays and has plans to build four more arrays this year and three in 2018. WIPCO offers a community solar program for members interested in getting into solar power. File photo by Bruce A. Binning

At last week’s National Governors Association summer meeting, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told the governors that solar power could provide all the electricity required by the United States.

A 100 mile by 100 mile solar array could do the job, he said.

Western Iowa Power Cooperative (WIPCO) has moved into solar power in the last several years, but the company’s goals are somewhat more modest.

Representatives of the company spoke with the Bulletin-Review about the June visit of the latest Iowa State University (ISU) solar car, called “Penumbra,” which stopped at the Denison WIPCO facility.

WIPCO is a member-owned rural electric cooperative that provides service to approximately 3,500 members in nine west central Iowa counties

The company’s 2,100 miles of electric distribution lines cover a service territory of 2,000 square miles.

WIPCO currently generates about 750 kW from three solar arrays.

“We thought bringing them (the ISU solar car team) here would be a good way to highlight solar, see the new technology and talk about where it’s going,” said WIPCO Executive Vice President and General Manager Jeff Bean. He said the ISU team is pushing innovation in the area of solar power.

“They’ve had a number of different cars throughout the years and each car seems to be getting better,” he said.

Bean said that while the ISU team has focused efforts in acquiring higher-efficiency solar panels, WIPCO has experienced a different kind of improvement in solar power.

“I can’t say we’ve seen great strides in efficiency,” he said. “What we have seen is the cost drop dramatically.”

WIPCO put up the company’s first solar array just two years ago.

Since then, the price of solar power equipment, such as panels and inverters, has dropped as much as 60 percent, he said.

The company plans to build four more solar arrays this year, for a total of seven arrays.

WIPCO plans to build three more arrays in 2018 and four in 2019 for a total generating capacity of close to three megawatts, Bean said.

“There have to be renewables plus natural gas, coal and nuclear,” he said. “When it comes to the utilities industry, there is no one thing that will be the silver bullet.”

The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, so the older technologies are still needed to back up the renewables, he said.

WIPCO will likely pursue land not currently owned by the cooperative for some of the arrays that will be built in the future.

An array requires about three acres of level ground and direct access to a three-phase WIPCO distribution line, Bean said.

For individuals interested in getting into solar power without the hassle of installing and connecting panels, WIPCO offers a community solar program for members of the cooperative.

“We structured the program so if they subscribe to one or two panels (on a WIPCO array) it’s like they have one or two panels sitting at their residence,” he said. “We’re able to price it in such a way to gain those economies of scale.”

Members who subscribe to a panel or panels on an array are given a monthly credit on their bill for whatever is produced from the panels.

A full panel costs $898 and a half-panel costs $450.

To be a member of the cooperative, individuals must be located on one of the company’s lines within the WIPCO service territory.

“Solar is great in the right scenarios,” said Stephanie Wiese, WIPCO director of Member Services/Economic Development. “We always promote being efficient in how you use energy first and then solar being sized correctly.”

Wiese said she believes the community solar program is an effective way to provide access to solar power.

“Members don’t have to maintain it and they don’t have to know a lot about it, but they can get the benefits from it,” she said. “When it’s done large scale it can be done cheaper than they could do it on their own.”

“How do I get involved in renewables and how do I keep my bill from going up?” are the questions WIPCO is most often asked, Wiese said.

“That’s what this does,” she said. “You get renewable energy and every time we have a rate increase the credit percent goes up as well. The people who have 100 percent covered (by solar) don’t see a rate increase.”

Wiese said some individuals who have bought into the program will have their entire bill covered for the next 20 years.

“They will not see much of a bill for the next 20 years and that’s the whole reason behind this,” she said.

WIPCO takes care of the panels, which eliminates maintenance and safety concerns for the individuals who own the panels.

WIPCO’s community solar program is one of the most successful programs of its kind among rural electric cooperatives in Iowa, Bean said.

“It has been very well received,” he said. “We’ve sold more than 750 panels.”

Bean said the monetary reasons for utilizing solar are not the only reason the company has been promoting the technology.

“Taking care of the environment and being good stewards of the earth are definitely good reasons for doing this,” he said.

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