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Electric co-op goes solar

By MITCHELL SCHMIDT

Iowa City Press-Citizen

Cooperative expands its solar investments in rural Iowa.

FRYTOWN, Iowa (AP) — For the last five years, tucked away in southwest Johnson County in the unincorporated community of Frytown, Farmers Electric Cooperative has been one of the state’s leading proponents of solar power.

And with plans to purchase about nine acres south of Farmers Electric Co-op headquarters, co-op manager Warren McKenna says the oldest rural electric cooperative in Iowa is on the verge of taking solar power to a new level.

The first stage in the solar farm proposal calls for the installation of about four acres of solar panels to feed renewable power back into the co-op. A second phase could more than double the number of solar panels to cover about nine acres.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that work on the nearly 2,000-module solar farm could begin by the start of 2014 and, when finished, it would be the largest solar field in the state, McKenna said.

“I think once we get the farm done, we will actually probably lead the nation in watts per customer,” McKenna said. “That’s huge.”

Founded in 1916, Farmers Electric Co-op has been investing in solar power since 2008 when the cooperative installed solar arrays at Township Elementary and Iowa Mennonite School for renewable energy and educational opportunities. A third array is planned for Pathway Christian School near Kalona as well.

Next came the solar garden, which allows residents to purchase solar panels — at a reduced cost — in the cooperative’s growing solar array behind the company’s main building. The value of power generated on the panels is then deducted from the customer’s electric bill.

Maria Urice, a consultant who helps coordinate and market the cooperative’s renewable and energy efficiency efforts, said the solar garden was an immediate success.

“We offered 20 (panels) and they were sold out in less than a week,” she said. “We ended up tripling the offer.”

Another initiative allows residents to purchase and install site arrays near their businesses, farms or homes. Again, the power generated replaces electricity used on the property.

While arrays can cost between $30,000 and $80,000, McKenna said the panels can pay for themselves in 10 years or less. Federal and state incentives also are available to customers who invest in solar power.

All these initiatives fit into the co-op’s goal to generate 15 percent of its entire power output using renewable energy by 2025.

At this rate, that goal could be met a decade early, McKenna said.

“We’ll meet the renewable energy portion of that goal by probably 2015,” he said.

Fifteen percent of the cooperative’s roughly 600 members already invest in solar power, McKenna said.

According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory report, Farmers Electric Co-op’s Green Power Project was ranked third in the nation for customer participation in renewable energy with more than 11 percent involvement.

“People are interested in this,” Urice said. “I think that this is making an impact beyond little Frytown.”

RJ Moore, Johnson County assistant planning and zoning director, said the co-op’s focus on solar power falls perfectly in step with the county’s 2008 Land Use Plan line item that encourages non-carbon-based energy production.

“We feel very good about it. I think it shows our Board of Supervisors’ ability to look into the future and see where Johnson County needs to be and allowing us, so far, to head in that direction,” Moore said.

Janelle Rettig, chairwoman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, applauded Farmers Electric Co-op’s efforts in renewable energy.

“From my perspective, finding renewable energy sources that are homegrown, right here, is really important for Iowa,” Rettig said. “Farmers Electric Co-op is leading the state. I think it’s really cool that it’s happening in Johnson County, and I hope we can multiply it.”

When asked why the co-op has been putting such a focus on renewable energy, primarily that which comes from the sun, McKenna summed it up simply: “We just like solar,” he said.



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