Dairyland Power Cooperative

Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois
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National and State Champion

Dairyland Power became a national leader in 2016 when they began a plan to develop 25 megawatts (MW) of solar power, doubling the existing solar generation in Wisconsin. Dairyland chose to build these projects in partnership with their member cooperatives, at distributed locations throughout their service territory.

Since then, 18 projects have been built (the last 3 announced in April 2018), fulfilling Dairyland’s goal to build 25 MW of new solar generation. Indications are that Dairyland will continue to develop more renewable energy.

No other Wisconsin utility of any sort – municipal, investor owned or rural electric cooperative – had built solar at this scale. Since then, two Wisconsin investor-owned utilities followed Dairyland’s lead and announced a plan for an even larger solar project.

Leadership & Members

Dairyland Power Cooperative is a “generation and transmission” cooperative (or “G&T”) which provides wholesale power to local retail cooperatives, known as “distribution cooperatives.” The distribution cooperatives are the owners and Board members of Dairyland which is why a G&T is known as a “cooperative of cooperatives.” Distribution cooperatives, themselves, are owned by their retail customers (members) who elect the Board of Directors and share in the risks and rewards of the cooperative.

Barb Nick was hired as Dairyland’s President and CEO in 2014 and has worked in the electric utility industry for over 30 years. Prior to Dairyland she worked for investor-owned utilities in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ms. Nick has eagerly embraced the cooperative spirit and she frequently invokes the Seven Cooperative Principles.

The Board of Directors also provides leadership for Dairyland Power in developing and approving solar plans. The Board represents Dairyland’s 25 member cooperatives in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois and the Board members are all co-op members themselves.

Cooperative members figure prominently in Dairyland’s plans and decisions. “Our members govern the generation and transmission cooperative,” said Barb Nick. Cooperatives are designed to be democratic. Members, or customers, of rural electric cooperatives enjoy influence over their electricity provider that customers of investor-owned utilities lack.

Barb Nick explained how members can influence decisions by their cooperatives on whether or not to embrace solar:

“If I [a co-op member] am interested in asking my cooperative to engage in solar, I merely need to talk to my Board member and to the manager and express that. Cooperatives have their annual meeting, they have many forums for member input. Several have member advisory panels, so there are many ways to have your voice heard if you’re a member of a co-op.”

Tapping the Power of Distributed Generation

Dairyland built their new solar generating capacity on sites across western Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, northwest Illinois and southeast Minnesota, and they serve many communities. With a total of 25 MW now operating, individual sites range in size from 500 kW to 2.5 MW. The distributed approach provides multiple benefits and helps to integrate the solar project into the existing transmission and distribution grid.

“The whole idea of dispersing smaller projects is something that we think is important with solar projects in rural areas,” said Craig Harmes, Manager of Business Development for Dairyland Power.

Given the smaller and more dispersed electrical loads in rural systems, distributed generation helps to more economically serve those loads. Multiple smaller projects connect more economically to their electrical network in part because they are sited adjacent to substations.

Dairyland found that this distributed solar approach helped them reduce costs and optimize reliability. The distribution of projects across such a broad geographic range also mitigates the effects of passing weather and clouds.

The Time is Right

Dairyland Power decided to pursue this big step because solar is ready for deployment after years of rapidly improving technology and falling costs. “What we have come to realize as a board and a management team is that the technology is ripe now and the pricing is right,” said Barb Nick.

Dairyland studied the option for several years before issuing their request for proposals in June of 2016.

Cooperation and Competition

The Dairyland solar strategy combined both competition and cooperation to deliver low cost and reliable solar power for their members.

Watch Video: Dairyland solar project development strategies for low cost and reliability. 

Dairyland used a competitive process to select project  developers and project sites. They issued a request for proposal (RFP) that allowed many parties to develop project ideas and to compete, which drove down costs.

In the end, the project featured a very high degree of cooperation, reflecting a key principle of “Cooperation among Cooperatives.” The winning proposal displayed collaboration among several distribution cooperatives, a cooperative development enterprise, a national cooperative organization and the developer.

Barb Nick reflected on the importance of cooperatives working together:

“And to me, that’s why this is a marquee event. You have a national cooperative, you have your G&T, you have the G&T member cooperatives working together not in isolation, but within a very competitive and robust, transparent process. And it turned out to work,” said Nick.

Piggybacking

Dairyland worked with their participating cooperatives to further expand solar generation at the sites through what they called “piggybacking,” The distribution cooperatives added their own generation at the sites, often offering their members to share in the project through the community solar approach.

Barb Nick celebrated this development: “Of the twelve projects that we’ve announced to date, over half of them (seven of them) will be piggybacking. And what I mean by piggybacking is they’re able to take advantage of the utility economic scale of our utility scale solar. And they now get a lower price point whether they decide to use that for their distribution cooperative or community solar. They get that lower price point, which is definitely a real ‘win-win.’”

The piggybacking approach added another 1.7 MW, or 7%, of solar generating capacity to the 25 MW for Dairyland.

Providing Pollinator Gardens for Bees and Birds

Each Dairyland solar project includes pollinator-friendly “prairie solar” which helps the local community in multiple ways. Planting blooming plants creates a “solar sanctuary” for bees, butterflies and other pollinator species. The deep rooted plants also help reduce runoff and provide erosion control. Over the life of the solar project, they improve the underlying soils.

Dairyland is the founding member of the Electric Power Research Institute’s Power-in-Pollinator Initiative, which is the largest pollinator collaboration in North America. Dairyland is dedicated to protecting natural resources through sustainable practices and environmental stewardship. Pollinator gardens are being created at 18 of Dairyland’s solar energy facilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Engie North America and CMS Energy, the solar project developers, are using native seed mixes of grasses and flowers to create beneficial bee and butterfly habitat at each site. Such pollinator plantings improve public support for large solar projects, which is especially important during permitting.

A total of nearly 250 acres of new pollinator habitat will be established at the 18 sites. Dairyland is also moving forward with plans to create pollinator habitat at three of its substations. Dairyland has built on this enthusiasm by helping to found the Power-in-Pollinators Initiative at the Electric Power Research Institute.

Electrifying with New Clean Load

Dairyland Power is looking to the future in other ways. They are seeking to serve members by adding new electricity uses that are beneficial both to the environment and to their system. Specifically, Dairyland is seeking to electrify transportation, including commercial vehicles, forklifts and other off-road vehicles.

More cooperatives are recognizing the benefits of “environmentally beneficial electrification.” It reduces polluting energy uses by implementing efficient electric systems that can be re-powered with increasingly cleaner energy; at the same time, it helps co-ops adapt to a rapidly changing energy landscape.

Solar for Schools

Dairyland Power Cooperative applied the “Concern for Community” cooperative principle in their school solar project. In cooperation with Western Technical College, Dairyland has installed a new solar array at the college to provide clean energy as well as education and training. The array will be used for electronics and energy management training to help students learn about solar array installation and maintenance.

This project is in addition to three installations at public schools in communities near Dairyland’s Wisconsin facilities in Fountain City, Alma and De Soto.

Advice to Other Cooperatives

Barb Nick provided advice to other cooperative leaders seeking to take their own large strides for solar:

“When talking to my peers about this, I do very candidly tell them this is something that we’re very proud of, that we’ve worked together and we’ve accomplished a result that is sustainable on many fronts. It gives us good diversification, it’s at the right price point and it reinforces what our members want to do with their distribution co-ops. So it’s been a great win.”

Ms. Nick highlighted their “best in class” approaches: they issued a national RFP, had well-thought out criteria, engaged a third party to help evaluate responses and stressed the importance of allowing ample staff time to get that done. She strongly emphasized the need to continuously communicate with members, local communities, zoning, engineering and the work force. Lastly she described the need for an excellent project manager to help “herd” the various actors.

Her advice to peers is to appreciate the intensity of work in trying to site large solar, finding the right land and acquiring zoning approval. The interconnections to the distribution or transmission system provide another “tranche of complexity.”

 

 

Dairyland Power Cooperative Photo Gallery

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Dairyland Power Cooperative Videos

Dairyland's preferred plan for portfolio diversification with solar.

Barbara Nick speaks to sustainability, in all its forms.

Dairyland's marquee solar expansion project.

Dairyland Power's lessons learned for large scale solar deployment.

Barb Nick on how cooperatives are unique.

Dairlyand solar project development strategies for low cost and reliability.

Dairyland CEO: Time is right to expand solar, build experience.

Dairyland's marquee solar project features cooperation among cooperatives.

Barb Nick speaks to "piggybacking" solar power developments.

Dairyland's challenges for ambitious solar project.

Dairyland Power and environmentally beneficial electrification.

Katie Thomson on Dairyland's Solar for Schools efforts.

Barb Nick of Dairyland speaks of co-op to co-op outreach.

Craig Harmes of Dairyland Speaks About Solar

Dairyland Power Cooperative Resources

DPC map of member cooperatives

DPC map of member cooperatives

Dairyland Solar Projects Map

Dairyland Solar Projects Map

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