Rural electric cooperatives in states across the Midwest have been investing in community solar in recent years and now, Missouri is joining their ranks.

A co-op that serves about 18,000 customers just north of Kansas City is starting construction on a 100-kilowatt system, and will be the first electric co-op in Missouri to offer community solar to its members.

The Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative decided to take the plunge after three surveys of members in recent years showed consistently robust support for renewable energy, and for solar in particular, according to the coop’s communications director, Cheryl Barnes

“We were surprised there was such a strong interest in renewables,” she said.

When asked on three occasions in 2013 and 2014 if the coop should develop renewable energy, between 54 and 63 percent of respondents said yes. When asked if they would pay more for their electricity in order to reduce their carbon footprint, those answering “yes” ranged from 31 to 50 percent.

In one survey, 67 percent of respondents said they would support a community solar project.

Barnes said she thinks several factors are driving members’ interest in community solar in particular, rather than installing solar on their own homes.

“For some, it’s covenants in their subdivisions. For some, it’s the orientation of their home or the space they have available. For some it’s the aesthetics. For some, it’s the upfront costs. There’s a lot of heartfelt interest in solar, but it may not work for them.”

It’s estimated that the system, to be installed next to Platte-Clay’s headquarters in Kearney, Missouri, will generate about 218,000 kilowatt-hours per year, the amount typically consumed by about 14 households, Barnes said. Once production begins, a live monitor of power generated will be viewable on the coop’s web site,

Construction is to begin in mid-February, and to be completed by the end of March at the latest, according to general manager Mike Torres. He said that, in order to test the system for a couple months, he doesn’t anticipate taking applications from customers until June 1. The co-op will own the panels, but is still pondering just how to structure it.

Torres said he thinks community-owned solar can better serve the utility as well as individual members. One solar field will be easier to manage and maintain than 14 far-flung residential installations, he said.

And as he heard someone say, “If we don’t provide solar for our customers, they’ll provide it for themselves.”

The co-op’s power provider, Associated Electric Cooperative in Springfield, Missouri, didn’t resist the move towards solar at all, Torres said. In fact, he said, it has already made some accommodations to help bring the experiment to fruition.

“Associated thought they might as well check this out and get on board. They are known for being progressive.”

If demand for community solar is brisk, Torres said he will consider an expansion. And it seems that other power co-ops in Missouri may follow suit.

David Diehl, Platte-Clay’s director of marketing, said that other co-ops are watching “carefully, carefully, carefully” to see how this experiment turns out. And he’ll be heading to a cooperative in central Missouri soon to inform them of what Platte-Clay is doing.

Torres said the co-op’s mission is “to offer members whatever they want” in terms of renewable energy.

“It’s hard to lay out a plan that does that and that is fair to everybody,” he said. “That’s one reason we’re starting out with a pilot, so we can learn as members learn what energy is coming out, and what costs are associated with distributed generation.”

Although a large number of members repeatedly have expressed a desire for a solar option, Torres said he understands that “when it comes to reaching in their pocket and spending money, sometimes they change their opinion. That’s human nature.

“This is a new thing. They are going to look at it. If we get half the interest the surveys show, our pilot will be sold out in just a few days.”

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

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