Farmers Electric Cooperative

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A National Leader

Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) distributes more locally produced solar energy per customer than any other utility in the country – 3.5 kW per member. The co-op’s leaders credit this distinction to the strong spirit of independence that began in 1916, when the co-op brought electricity to farmers years before the rest of rural Iowa and much of the nation. Farmers Electric is the second-oldest electric co-op in the United States; it provides power to 650 members near Frytown, IA.

Farmers Electric Cooperative’s solar leadership has been nationally recognized. According to the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA) 2017 Utility Solar Market Snapshot, FEC claimed third place nationally for cumulative solar watts per customer, and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has recognized FEC as among the top 10 utilities for utility green power programs.

FEC seeks to use all forms of solar. They have community solar gardens and utility solar, and programs to support member-owned solar.

Local Leader

Warren McKenna, the cooperative’s general manager and the 2014 SEPA Utility CEO of the Year, is a local solar champion who transformed the heart of one of the largest Amish and Mennonite communities into a solar powerhouse. Warren built a diversified solar portfolio that involves the community and focuses on smart economics.

“The most important part is the members own the co-op, and you want to save them money. You want to retain their dollars in the local community and turn it over, so it turns over more.” McKenna says. “It’s not just an environmental issue, it’s a financial issue when you keep the dollars local and the local processors and farmers want it. They want to add value to their farm, and this is a way to do it.”

Diverse Solar Energy Projects

The co-op generates 20% of its power from solar energy, which is generated by a number of distributed sources.

Here are some examples of the solar projects FEC has completed:

  • 50 kW community solar garden with 100+ owners
  • 52 kW at its “solar schools” demonstration sites
  • 500 kW of member-owned solar on about 34 homes and businesses across three counties
  • 7 MW solar farm

Why solar?

So why did Farmers Electric Co-op decide to invest in solar energy? According to McKenna, “Solar works here, where we don’t have a good wind resource. We know it’s the future, so we wanted to learn early on.”

American Can-Do Attitude

Farmers Electric Co-op’s road to solar was bumpy at first. In 2008, McKenna applied for an ambitious grant to build 300 solar sites at individual properties; he was rejected. Then he visited the state’s first-ever annual solar dealer show, purchased a small demonstration array, and built it on the FEC office. He liked it so much that he applied for another grant to build these arrays throughout the co-op’s territory; he was rejected again. He decided to scale back the idea and instead focus on “demonstration projects” that might prove the potential of solar in the community.

School Demonstration Projects

Farmers Electric Cooperative built demonstration projects at Mid-Prairie Township Elementary School and the Iowa Mennonite School. Teachers at those schools developed an energy curriculum related to the projects to help students learn more about renewable energy, energy usage and conservation opportunities. One of the local high school teachers, who is also an electrician, took the initiative to receive training from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association so he could install solar panels himself and teach students some of those skills.

 

Community Solar Garden

Building on the excitement of the school demonstration projects, Farmers Electric Co-op decided to offer a community solar garden. Members were given the option to pay a voluntary $3/month fee to finance the project. It sold out in 2 days.

Then they doubled the size. And it sold out again.

Today FEC is one of the top 10 co-ops in the nation for participation in such a program. Solar worked, and the community wanted it. “That was so popular, and we kept down costs by doing our own labor,” McKenna says. “After that little program, we introduced a rebate program and a feed-in tariff to incentivize the site solar. It just grew from there.”

Member-owned Solar

In FEC’s relatively small territory, there are about 34 member-owned solar installations with a total of about 500 kW of solar energy capacity. These member-owned projects were financed by FEC’s rebate program, which ensured a 7-10-year payback. And that high school physics teacher who took the training? He’s installed about 90% of these local solar projects. “We all try to keep our dollars in the community,” McKenna says. “We’re very small, but Washington and Johnson counties have the highest concentrations of solar in Iowa.”

 

 

SunStation Solar Farm

In 2014, FEC installed what was then the largest solar facility in Iowa – 2,900 275-watt modules on four acres. The solar farm generates more than 1,000,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year – enough to power approximately 130 homes and replace about 400 tons of carbon-based fuel with clean, local energy.

Creative Solar Financing

The solar farm is a collaboration between FEC and Eagle Point Solar, an Iowa-based solar developer that designed and owns the solar farm. Through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Eagle Point, FEC will purchase the array’s power for 10 years. At the end of that contract, ownership of the solar farm will transfer to FEC.

This financing method allows tax-exempt entities like municipalities, non-profits, and electric cooperatives to reap the benefits of federal tax incentives to support local, renewable energy at lower costs.

Local Benefits

The co-op purchased nine acres of vacant land in order to build the solar farm. The sellers used that income to invest in a nearby facility that now houses four new businesses that are purchasing 100% of the power generated by that solar farm. “The solar farm is basically a revenue-neutral power purchase agreement, which is quite an accomplishment for a $2 million project,” McKenna says. He also noted that Farmers Electric Co-op staff, many of whom are licensed electricians, do a fair share of the installation work themselves to keep down costs.

Looking Forward

In 2016, Farmers Electric began expanding the solar farm. It more than doubled in size, making it a 1.7 MW farm. With two solar farms, a solar garden, and 35 solar sites, FEC annually generates over 2.9 million kilowatt-hours of local solar energy. “The long-term goal is to have a pretty high percentage of our power produced locally or grown locally,” McKenna says. “We’re doing that through conservation, efficiency and renewables.” On a sunny Sunday afternoon, FEC typically generates 100% of its kilowatt-hours locally.

Farmers Electric Cooperative adopted a plan to purchase 25% less power from outside sources by the year 2025. They aim to achieve this milestone through renewable energy (15%), energy efficiency (7%), and energy tracking (3%). With the solar farm’s completion, the renewable energy component of FEC’s goal has been met at least 10 years ahead of schedule.

FEC plans to “add 70 modules onto their Solar Garden this fall with members being able to own 1 to 10 modules each,” says McKenna. What will they do next? Stay tuned.

Farmers Electric Cooperative Photo Gallery

solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
Solar power in Frytown, IA.
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown
solar power in Frytown

Farmers Electric Cooperative Videos

Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Co-op discusses their vision to build their local economy with solar power.

Farmers Electric Co-op's Warren McKenna talks about how their community works together to build solar.

Farmers Electric Co-op Warren McKenna on how solar can help to keep dollars in the community.

Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Co-op on solar.

Warren McKenna talks about solar and why the Farmers Electric Co-op board supported it.

Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Co-op discusses innovative solar valuation for connecting solar to the grid.

Warren McKenna lays out the multiple approaches Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) has taken to develop solar.

Farmers Electric Co-op Warren McKenna on how members own the cooperative and solar can help to keep dollars in the community.

Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Cooperative tells how a solar farm grew local businesses.

Farmers Electric Co-op Warren McKenna talks about solar benefits for economy.

Warren McKenna talks about how Farmers Electric Cooperative's solar leadership has spurred other projects

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