Warren McKenna, Farmers ElectricSeize the local energy opportunity fast, or miss out
A quick glance to our neighbor state to the south provides a lot of inspiration to get moving faster on local renewable energy.
Meet Warren McKenna, the manager of Farmers Electric Cooperative (FEC) in Kalona, Iowa, where 38 percent of the membership are involved in local energy projects, with the co-op’s strong support. “If you don’t participate in this, someone else is going to come along and do it, there’s going to be another party coming in and marketing to your membership,” says McKenna, who’s been closely watching the changing energy marketplace for years. “I encourage co-ops to participate before they lose control. There’s a lot of future in solar, and a lot of future in wind as well.”
“We started moving toward more of a distributed model back in 2000,” McKenna explains. “We set a vision to do quite a bit locally. Our wind resources weren’t that great so we went with solar.” In 2008, FEC launched an experimental community solar installation, a 20-module project that sold out in a single day. “There were probably only a handful of community solar installations in the nation when we started, but they were so popular,” McKenna recalls. The current installation has over 100 subscribers.
FEC then partnered with the Center for Energy and Environmental Education to bring local generation to schools in their service territory. As a part of the Solar Schools program, 1800-watt solar tracking units were installed at both Washington Township Elementary School and the Iowa Mennonite High School, and were paired with a classroom curriculum. The following year the high school added an additional 50 kw of solar panels to the school.
To further incentivize local ownership of solar, FEC gave their members the option of a feed-in tariff (a 20¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for solar energy) or an upfront solar rebate. These incentives, along with Federal programs such as the Investment Tax Credit, have helped FEC members construct on-site solar installations. There are currently 30 installations across the service territory, each designed to pay off in less than ten years.
These programs helped FEC support their members’ interest in solar, building up member ownership of solar to the 38% level today. Additional co-op members are also powered with local renewable energy from FEC’s 9-acre, nearly 2MW megawatt solar field owned by the co-op. First constructed in 2014, FEC completed an expansion project which doubled the original size of the project. The expansion was completed in late October 2016, and had already produced $3,000 worth of electricity in just the first 14 days of November.
“This is a very conservative area,” says Warren about his member owners, “but when you show them the payback (for clean energy) they get it, because they’re into farming and they understand that this stuff pays for itself.” When asked what others can do to start their efforts, McKenna advised: “They already do energy efficiency measures, so just expand that. Probably 90 percent of co-ops rebate on geothermal. Take some of that money you allocate for windows or lighting and allocate a bit to community solar and that would be a great start.”
“We’re in a technology change more than anything,” McKenna adds, “so you have to grab a hold of it.”