When the management of BARC Electric Cooperative, which serves over 12,000 members in five rural counties in southwestern Virginia, began thinking about a community solar system in early 2014, the fact that most types of community solar projects were, and still are, prohibited in the state did not deter their efforts.
After exploring the option with help from the Solar Electric Power Association, BARC CEO Mike Keyser set out to lead the development of the state’s first true community solar system with a model that he says other communities could replicate.
After announcing, accepting subscribers and building the system, the cooperative is set later this summer to flip the “on” switch. Comprised of 1,750 panels capable of generating 550 kilowatts of electricity, the system is designed to meet 25 percent of the energy needs for approximately 220 subscribers, at a price fixed for 20 years.
Keyser spoke with Southeast Energy News about how the idea became a reality for a rural electric cooperative set in the middle of Appalachia.
Southeast Energy News: Tell our readers about BARC Electric Cooperative and why you thought a community solar system would appeal to your members?
Keyser: As a member-focused cooperative, we have a great feel for our membership’s needs and wants. We’ve seen a lot of interest in rooftop solar and members asking for help with calculating the payback. But it wasn’t materializing into anything. Many members simply couldn’t afford the upfront costs, or they had some kind of physical barrier to rooftop solar, like shading.
How did the idea for a community solar system first arise? And how did you determine, in fact, that you could legally proceed?
We went looking for ways where the cooperative could provide solar to our members and break down the barriers they face individually. The community solar model fit hand-in-glove with our mission. And as the incumbent electric utility, it is our job to deliver electricity to our customers, so the legality of building a centralized solar array and distributing the power to customers’ homes was never a question.
Q: What type of a system did you set out to develop?
We looked at the “pay up front” model where customers get a credit on their bill. We settled on a fixed rate model because we determined one of the key barriers to solar is the high upfront cost.
It was also vitally important that the project self-sustain its own growth. We needed to get the levelized (average) cost of energy low enough so that a portion of every subscription would be set aside in a revolving fund to pay for project expansion.As long as there is a waiting list, like right now, the project will continue to pay for its own growth.
How did you decide on the system’s size?
It was based on many factors, but it was essentially a balancing act between building a system large enough to serve a meaningful number of members, while keeping the total capital costs manageable so that it was not detrimental to our balance sheet.
How did you decide to finance the system?
We applied for, and were awarded, two grants with the idea of driving down the capital costs so that we could build a meaningful revolving fund. One grant is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
How did you organize the signup process?
We used bold, simple visuals so customers would easily grasp what can be complex concepts. We advertised “solar energy blocks” as opposed to kilowatt-hours. We described the total monthly cost as opposed to the cents-per-kilowatt hour cost. We created a cartoon to explain the project and how it worked. We made it fun and easy to understand.
How did you select the firm to build the system and whom did you choose?
We solicited bids and selected the contractor based on their track record, their reputation for quality and their shared vision of what we were trying to accomplish. We hired Affordable Energy Concepts, based in Madison Heights, Virginia. They have been a great partner to work with.
What is the current estimated total cost?
Before factoring in the grants, the current estimate of cost is $1.35 million.
How many customers are on the waiting list today? And how big might this system become by 2020?
The project sold out just a couple weeks ago, and there are already about 20 members on the waiting list. It continues to grow each day. In addition, nearly every subscriber has expressed interest in receiving more than their 25% cap from community solar. So I really think the sky is the limit on how big this can become.