Thursday, May 20, 2021

Rural electric cooperatives, long dependent on coal, move toward renewable energy: first to wind, and now to solar

National Rural Electric Cooperative Assn. graph shows solar use at co-ops that generate electricity.

Rural electric cooperatives have been relatively slow to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, but they are catching up. They have embraced wind for some time; now a March report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association shows solar is projected to be part of the mix next year at more than half of the co-ops that generate electricity for customer-member cooperatives. The solar share is less at those distribution co-ops (see graph below).

One example of a generating co-op that is gradually embracing solar is Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in central Virginia, written up by Elizabeth McGowan of Energy News Network.

Old Dominion "has 30 megawatts of operating solar, another 135 MW on the way soon, and a pending proposal to add up to another 400 MW in the next four years. That could add up to a tenfold leap, or beyond, by 2025," McGowan reports. Nationally, co-ops had 1,349 MW of solar in their retail fuel mix, NRECA's Dan Riedinger told The Rural Blog.

The Virginia co-op is a national leader in use of renewable energy. "Earlier this year, it became the second generation and transmission co-op nationwide to set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Since 2005, the co-op has almost halved emissions of heat-trapping gases."

Old Dominion's attitude toward solar has changed due to "tumbling prices, forceful prodding from their distribution brethren, and progressive top leadership," McGowan writes. "For years, solar advocates and utility watchdogs have called out co-ops as laggards on the energy transition front. Critics say co-ops’ three main shortcomings are being too coal-dependent; hamstrung by fossil-fuel-reliant, long-term contracts that can stretch for decades; and failing to deliver on the promise of democracy at the foundation of their governance model because so few members vote for boards."

Oklahoma Electric Cooperative solar farm (OEC photo)
Several other co-ops have built, are building, or have applied for permission from state regulators to build, solar farms. The change is encouraging to John Farrell, who runs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and co-authored a 2016 report on what stymied co-ops and offered solutions. “I’ve definitely seen a shift,” Farrell told McGowan. “It’s a fascinating dynamic because when co-ops decide to move, they can do it really quickly, much faster than an investor-owned utility.”

Farrell said the biggest factor is plummeting prices for solar generation, McGowan writes, "but equally important is peeling back the myth perpetrated by utilities that upping renewables in the fuel mix would interfere with grid reliability."

In some cases co-ops are following state mandates to increase renewable energy sources. They have done that mostly through wind power. NRECA says 19 percent of its member co-ops' retail electricity came from renewables in 2019, the latest year for which figures are available. It didn't have a solar percentage handy, but stay tuned. 

NRECA graph shows solar use at cooperatives that distribute electricity from a generating co-op or other source.

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