The CoServ Solar Station in Krugerville, Texas. Photo: KEN OLTMANN/CoServ

Some of the most remote areas in the United States were among the last locations to access electricity, with as many as nine out of 10 rural homes were without electricity in the mid-1930s. When President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, things began to change. Roosevelt’s New Deal era sparked the creation of 900 electric cooperatives (co-ops) that today power the homes of more than 42 million Americans across 47 states. These non-profit, member-owned electricity companies cover 70% of U.S. geographic territory and focus on ensuring that all rural communities have access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable sources of electricity.  

Americans in major cities and suburbs are powering their homes and businesses with clean and renewable solar electricity as the cost of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy systems decline dramatically. Now, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) is working with the co-ops it represents to spearhead a national initiative to make going solar cheaper, faster, and easier for Americans in rural communities.

As a part of its SunShot Initiative award, Solar Utility Networks: Replicable Innovations In Solar Energy (SUNRISE), NRECA is partnering with 17 co-ops, Power Secure, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC), and Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange to develop, test, and deploy the “PV System Toolkit.” This resource is a ready-to-use set of standard engineering designs, financing models, templates, tools, and plans, and its suite of materials offers best practices designed to reduce solar adoption costs and help co-ops across the country navigate the many ways in which they can integrate solar into their asset portfolios. Through this project, NRECA is also supporting the deployment of more than 23 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale PV in 15 states, while providing hundreds of rural communities with proven solutions to leverage the benefits of cost-competitive and reliable solar electricity generation. 

One of the first co-ops to work with NRECA to deploy community solar projects was CoServ Electric, the second largest co-op in Texas. CoServ installed a 2 MW system on a 16-acre peanut farm in Krugerville, Texas where members can purchase kilowatt-hour blocks of power from the site. NRECA also saw early successes in Georgia, where the Green Power Electric Membership Corporation, the renewable arm of Oglethorpe Power Corporation, completed five systems in 2016, bringing 7.7 MW worth of community solar programs to communities throughout the state.

NRECA continues to work with co-ops across the country to deploy a variety of solar projects and business models that expand accessibility and meet the unique needs of each co-op. For example, the Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation installed a community solar system specifically designed to make solar affordable: members pay only $20 each month for the output of 5.5 solar panels. The Appalachian Electric Cooperative in Tennessee created an option for co-op members to donate electricity from the solar system to a local non-profit while in North Carolina, distribution co-op Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation is adding storage technology to its 1.2 MW system in 2017 to boost the community’s resiliency.  

Demand for NRECA’s PV System Toolkit continues to grow. NRECA is engaging hundreds of co-ops and thousands of co-op staffers and representatives as they consider offering solar power as an option for their members. From 2015 to 2016, 3,000 representatives from 347 co-ops—more than a third of all co-ops and more than half of all generation transmission co-ops—participated in NRECA’s PV System Toolkit webinars. With an additional 4,600 co-op board members and staffers participating in PV System Toolkit and co-op solar trainings, it’s no wonder solar growth in the co-op community is exploding. America’s electric cooperatives expect to double their current solar capacity by the end of 2017, adding more than 480 MW of solar for a total capacity of 873 MW nationwide. Because of the program’s success, NRECA plans to reach every member cooperative and ensure they have the information they need about going solar. 

NRECA’s project team also works with private investors to help them understand challenges co-ops face when financing new solar projects. Since Co-ops are nonprofit entities, they can’t take advantage of tax and accelerated depreciation incentives for solar projects. NRECA has already helped Cooperative Finance Corporation, CoBank, and other private equity firms develop new offerings that allow co-ops to easily fund solar projects. Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Appalachian Electric Cooperative, Brunswick Electric Cooperative, and Green Power Electric Membership Corporation all used these new financing offerings to develop their solar co-op projects.

NRECA’s work is critical to the widespread deployment of solar energy because electric co-ops serve large geographic areas and deliver electricity to more than 12% of all electricity customers in the United States. Its work is not only making it easier for electric co-ops to deploy solar, but its efforts are helping to make solar electricity accessible to millions of Americans for the very first time. 

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.