Prairie Power, Inc.

Central Illinois
The StoryPhoto GalleryVideosAdditional Resources

State Solar Champion

Prairie Power, Inc. (PPI) has led cooperative solar development in Illinois by investing in over a megawatt of solar power and has the potential for even more growth. PPI’s first steps position the cooperative well to provide a power source with a sunny future for its members.

PPI consists of ten member distribution (or “retail”) cooperatives, with PPI providing for their generation and transmission (“wholesale”) needs.

Prairie Power began solar development by looking for two sites on which to locate two nearly identical five acre solar facilities. In cooperation with two of its member cooperatives, Spoon River Electric Cooperative and Shelby Electric Cooperative, they obtained access to the property they required. In addition to these two solar farms, two other PPI member cooperatives have also installed their own solar farms.

Spoon River and Shelbyville Solar Farms

The Spoon River solar farm rises above Highway 24 near Astoria, Illinois, southwest of Peoria and west of the Illinois River community of Havana. The Shelbyville Solar farm is located just east of the Lake Shelbyville Dam along Highway 16. Each has 2,052 solar panels covering five acres which produce over 500 kilowatts (kw) of clean solar power at peak production. The solar power produced by these two solar farms is used by PPI to serve the combined needs of their member cooperatives’ nearly eighty-thousand consumers across the state.

Spoon River Solar Farm Learning Center

An entertaining educational center sits across the road from the Spoon River Solar Farm; the Spoon River Solar Farm Learning Center. The community contributed their talents to help build the Learning Center, much as their rural predecessors pulled together to form rural electric cooperatives.

Conceived by Bill Dodds, CEO of Spoon River Electric Cooperative, the Solar Farm Learning Center was built to serve the future – educating school children and neighbors about solar energy and related energy topics. Now school children can take their education out of the classroom and into the field to learn about the future of power production from the central Illinois sun. They can touch panels and see meters turned by solar power, learn about different jobs in solar and electric power and about women who work in the energy field, and they can engage with many other topics.

Cooperative Cooperation

“Cooperation among cooperatives” is one of the seven Cooperative Principles at work in the development and operation of the Spoon River and Shelbyville solar projects.

PPI led development of the solar projects in collaboration with their distribution cooperatives, which provided local input and community outreach. Representatives from each PPI member distribution cooperative make up the PPI Board of Directors. Together, they developed plans for the two PPI-owned solar farms. Further, the cooperatives developed the project with other cooperative organizations; The National Renewables Cooperative Organization (NRCO) provided development assistance, with financing from the Cooperative Finance Corp and CoBank. A private firm, Azimuth Energy, won the competitive bid for project engineering, materials procurement and construction of the project.

The host communities were also supportive of their locally owned cooperative solar power. “We had tremendous support from the local community,” Dodds added. This strong community support and the solid relationship between the Spoon River Electric Cooperative and the Fulton County Board Members helped to bring this project about.

First Steps to More Solar

“Solar is a viable option today,” said Robert Reynolds, Vice President of Member Services for Prairie Power. PPI’s new solar projects are the first steps they’ve taken for utility solar development. The cooperative sought to become familiar with solar and to see it in practice at a utility scale.

PPI is positioning itself for continuing solar progress. “The cost of large scale solar projects has declined substantially over the past several years and the panels are becoming more efficient in turning sun light into electricity,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds spoke of the benefits of moving toward a balanced and diverse generation portfolio, adding solar and wind investments to augment their fossil fuel generation. “We seek to have a generation portfolio designed to minimize the risks of price fluctuations to our members. Just as with an investment portfolio, it pays to diversify and look to different sources of electricity; solar, wind, natural gas and coal. One might say we have an all of the above portfolio strategy where our eggs are spread among many baskets.”

Looking to the Future

Prairie Power tested the solar waters with these two projects, to become familiar with it and see utility solar in practice. They recognized that problems could arise, but with good engineering and good planning, the solar farms integrated into their grid and have operated well.

“There have not been many challenges; that’s a pleasant part of this learning process,” said Robert Reynolds of PPI.

PPI has found that the solar project has exceeded power production expectations. As the cooperative adds solar power to their expertise they will be prepared for more solar success.

The co-op leaders and the utility industry as a whole look to the future where battery storage helps solar to provide firm power to the system. “Our job is to keep the power flowing around the clock. Storage is what’s missing in the equation here”, said Robert Reynolds. “When economic electricity storage is developed by the likes of Tesla, intermittent wind and solar based renewables will be even more viable than they are today. Until then we will continue to rely on a mix of conventional fossil power plants and renewable resources.”

Bright Options Community Solar

Prairie Power offers members an opportunity to increase the portion of their power supply from solar, in a shared solar arrangement they call “Bright Options.” The Bright Options program features more cooperation among cooperatives, allowing the member consumers of all of PPI’s distribution cooperatives to access solar generated electricity from the Spoon River and Shelby Solar Farms.

Bright Options provides a way for their members to use more solar power without having to purchase and install a system on their premises. Depending upon member consumer interest, it also establishes a possible opportunity for additional solar farms to be added in the future.

From Co-op to Community, A Can Do Approach

Prairie Power and their partner cooperatives show a “can do” spirit throughout their projects.  “We constantly assess what are the best and most economical sources of electricity for our member cooperatives and their consumers.” said Robert Reynolds. He said as Prairie Power looks to the future they will likely add more renewable resources such as wind and solar.

“Cooperatives are well ahead of many when it comes to the installation of smart meters.  We look forward to the day when these smart meters enable our consumer members to make active choices about how they consume electricity and when.”

Robert Reynolds added, “I have been in the utility business my entire career and right now is certainly the most exciting and hopeful time for innovation and consumer interaction through smart devices.  We look forward to working cooperatively with our member cooperatives and their consumer members to take full advantage of this exciting time.”

 

Prairie Power, Inc. Photo Gallery

DSC_5995_1
kids
DSC_6176_1
SpoonRiverEdCenter4
DSC_6024_1
DSC_6171_1
DSC_5992_1
Robert Reynolds of Prairie Power
DSC_6010_1

Prairie Power, Inc. Videos

Prairie Power and Spoon River talk of strong community support for solar.

Spoon River General Manager Bill Dodds talks about Prairie Power's Bright Options Program for solar.

Robert Reynolds talks about solar power and it's viability.

Spoon River General Manager Bill Dodds talks about their excellent learning center.

Prairie Power's Robert Reynolds talks about their solar projects.

Prairie Power, Inc. Resources

PPI-Member-Map-Cropped

PPI-Member-Map-Cropped

© 2019 Environmental Law & Policy Center