5 Ways Co-ops Can Benefit from Solar and Storage

By: Pivot Energy

May 19 2020

5 Ways Co-ops Can Benefit from Solar and Storage


Jon Sullivan

SVP of Project Development


More and more co-op utilities in Colorado are finding ways to add solar to their generation mix. Solar is an excellent way to add local, clean, and money-saving energy to balance out the energy purchased from fossil fuel energy sources provided by their wholesale provider. However, it is difficult for a co-op to sort through all of the different technologies, finance models, and policy to know what project concept is most suitable for their situation. That is why Pivot is providing some sample project concepts geared toward co-op utilities to help get started.

Community solar is an excellent way for co-ops to spread the benefits of solar across many members while also benefitting from the scale of a big project. However, the community solar model can be structured in many ways. For co-ops that currently purchase from TriState, there is now the Policy 119 framework which, allows Community Solar Generation Projects. Using Policy 119 as a guide, the next steps would be to identify a suitable substation or area of the grid that can accept solar generation without significant upgrades. While the electrical design is being perfected, we can structure a community solar product that provides value to co-op members, and value to the co-op. Examples could be a green tariff product, a monthly subscription product, or a long-term ownership product. Community solar projects can be owned and operated by Pivot or by the co-op directly. Pivot can also provide its SunCentral software as a way of managing the customer relationship. Managing dozens or even hundreds of customers in a community solar project is made easy with the right software and company, and should be part of the co-op’s consideration when planning a community solar project.

Battery Storage coupled with solar is the next evolution underway in the renewable industry. Storage can help co-ops control when, where, and how electricity is discharged on its grid infrastructure. An investment in solar is very predictable and reliable, but for grid operators, the intermittent nature of solar production can make it difficult to manage. Adding storage technology can help co-ops balance seasonal and daytime load cycles. Storage can also help save co-ops money by reducing the amount of electricity purchased at peak times. Lastly, battery storage can add resiliency to the co-op grid infrastructure to ensure electricity will be available during times that other infrastructure might be failing. There is no one size fits all storage product solution which is why Pivot likes to collaborate with the co-op team to design a solution. To be successful, we would need daily and seasonal interval load data for the distribution lines, substation, and area of the grid that is under consideration. From there, we can start to design a solar + storage solution that is appropriate.

Net metered solar, also known as onsite solar or behind-the-meter solar, is a great way to directly offset the electric use of one customer. Like any utility, co-op utilities have a variety of members from residents, to seasonal agricultural uses, to manufacturing plants, to schools, libraries, and municipal buildings. This is one of the easiest solar models and has been around for over a decade. With the net meter model, Pivot can work directly with the customer and assess their electricity usage. Then we look at the customer’s property and assess what solar design can offset that usage. The physical electricity is connected onsite and literally spins the customer meter backward. This would be a three-way arrangement between the co-op, the co-op member, and Pivot.

Virtual net meter (VNM) is another new model in the solar industry and is almost a hybrid between net metered solar and a community solar project. The VNM model is appropriate when there is a co-op member that would like to go solar, would like to have their own solar project, but ultimately their property is not suitable for solar. Their property may be too small, not structural sound, shaded by trees, or the customer simply does not want solar on their property. Pivot would then work with the co-op to identify a remote site and install a project that virtually offsets the co-op member’s electricity use. For example, a member may need a 500 kW solar system to offset 100% of their electric use, and unfortunately, the customer does not have a property suitable for a 500 kW system. Pivot finds an undeveloped piece of land 2 miles away and installs the solar facility and interconnects directly to the co-op grid. The physical electricity is distributed across the grid and helps the co-op with local distributed generation. The credits for kWh generated will appear on that customer’s electric bill as if it was on their site. Pivot would work with the co-op using our SunCentral software to easily count kWh, invoice, and track benefits to all parties.

Pivot has structured and developed many different solar projects across the nation. In 2019 Highline Electric Association, along with Pivot, successfully implemented a 1.5 MWac project interconnected near Sterling, Colorado. Also in 2019, we worked with Mountain Parks Electric to develop two 1 MWac projects- one in Walden and the other in Fraser Colorado. All of these projects took advantage of the TriState Policy 115 framework, which has since expired. For those projects, we identified the land, completed all land entitlement, interconnect agreement work, and arranged construction. Those projects are now owned by the co-ops under a sale lease back structure, which will prove to be a valuable asset for the co-ops for decades to come.

Pivot has developed dozens of community solar projects across the nation, and we manage thousands of community solar customers on behalf of utilities and other solar developers. We have also developed hundreds of onsite solar projects big and small. We take a collaborative approach to working with any client to find the solar solution that makes sense for them. This is especially true when working with co-op utilities sense their grid infrastructure and policy framework is so dynamic. Pivot would love to work with co-ops to help pioneer a solution that is of value to their members and to their Board of Directors.

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Together, solar and storage offer the unique ability to lower both demand and energy portions of a customer’s electricity bill.