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That’s a wrap.
The SUNDA project officially closed in July amid a cooperative solar landscape that is dramatically different from the one that existed nearly five years ago when the initiative kicked off.
“SUNDA succeeded because of cooperative principle number six: ‘Cooperation Among Cooperatives,’” says Debra Roepke of NRECA’s Business and Technology Strategies group. “SUNDA partner co-ops cooperated with one another to explore and implement options. Lessons from their real-world experience formed the core of a set of tools that have already been used by hundreds of other co-ops across the nation.”
Launched in late 2013, NRECA’s Solar Utility Network Deployment Acceleration project was financed in part with a U.S. Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative grant. Its goal was to advance research and testing of systems that would help expand solar energy technologies.
“The DOE grant enabled NRECA both to support early solar adopters and collect data and case studies that provide insight into challenges and solutions related to the technology,” says Roepke, who served as NRECA’s co-project manager and liaison to SUNDA participants. “The results have helped spur interest in a wide range of co-op projects, from utility-scale solar to community solar ownership and leasing programs to oversight of vendor programs.”
Seventeen distribution and G&T co-ops of various sizes, in diverse locations with a wide range of climates, initially participated in SUNDA. Dozens of others benefited from the research and updates provided regularly during the project.
“The partner co-ops collaborated with one another, generously shared their challenges and successes, and contributed to a rich array of resources that will continue to support co-ops as they navigate the changing energy landscape,” Roepke says.
Total solar capacity owned or contracted by electric cooperatives has skyrocketed from 94 MW to 868 MW, a nine-fold increase, between 2013 and 2018. Electric co-ops now host nearly 65 percent of all utility-sponsored community solar projects and have developed several programs designed to give low- to moderate-income members access to solar power.
The research has built a broad co-op knowledge base, producing field manuals, business models, finance and insurance prospectuses, and procurement guides and establishing a framework to accelerate technology adoption by co-ops.
“CoServ Electric’s 2-MW AC solar facility, the CoServ Solar Station, was the first system using NRECA’s modular engineering designs to come on-line,” says Curtis Trivitt, senior vice president of energy services for the Corinth, Texas-based distribution co-op. “Using these resources helped CoServ keep the project cost at less than $2 per watt, which was one of the interim goals of the SUNDA project.”
Roepke touted the program’s knowledge base for making solar feasible for members.
“While interest in solar is gaining momentum, we recognized that a number of approaches will be needed to ensure that co-ops have affordable options to make the technology available to members who want it,” Roepke says. “Solar may not make sense for every co-op, but we now have a toolset—made by co-ops, for co-ops—that enables any co-op to objectively assess their solar options and support implementation.”
Some SUNDA participants see the research as providing a model not only for solar projects but for other emerging technologies, including energy storage.
“We’re using the SUNDA materials in development of a microgrid project,” says Kevin Short, CEO and general manager of Anza Electric Cooperative, one of the original SUNDA partners. “The engineering is particularly beneficial for focusing on utility-scale projects.”
Meanwhile, Fall Creek, Wisconsin-based Eau Claire Energy Cooperative was an early participant in the SUNDA program, launching a 750-kW community solar project first with purchased shares. The offering required a significant upfront investment from participants. When subscriptions plateaued, the co-op looked to a more flexible model used by another SUNDA participant.
“Many working families can afford to invest $20 a month into solar, but a couple of thousand dollars would strain their budgets,” says Lynn Thompson, CEO and general manager at Eau Claire Energy.
The pricing change worked.
“Our project is now fully subscribed,” Thompson says. “Monthly payments allowed us to serve a different segment of our membership. Had we not changed our pricing model, we might not have gotten there.”
Visit cooperative.com/sunda to see the SUNDA project final report and resources.
Read about 'The Story of Co-op Solar in Nine Graphics."