Iowa town is eager for state to get moving on community solar

Although community solar is not officially sanctioned in Iowa, a half-dozen large institutions in one town are angling to create a “shared solar” array that they envision would allow them to generate solar power more economically than each could do individually.

“People have been asking for this for quite some time,” said Andy Johnson, director of the Winneshiek Energy District and the organizer of the project. “Iowa is not one of the handful of states that have legislation enabling community solar. People don’t have the automatic option for community solar here, but there is a great deal of interest.”

“In Iowa, as elsewhere, about half of customers don’t have the option for behind-the-meter solar,” Johnson said, due to lack of an appropriate site or other obstacles.

On-site solar is even more elusive for non-taxable entities such as municipalities and schools, because they generally rely on financing through a third party in order to take advantage of tax credits.

Since last summer, when the Iowa Supreme Court upheld third-party financing of solar installations, Iowa’s two major utilities have been refusing to allow net metering under those circumstances. That effectively makes the finances of solar power much less workable. A complaint against Alliant is now pending before the utilities board.

Partly with that in mind, Johnson and several institutions in the Decorah area have been developing a proposal to establish one large solar array that would provide solar power for the City of Decorah, the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors, the Winneshiek Medical Center, Luther College and Northeast Iowa Community College.

The proposal they sent to Alliant in mid-June requested that:

  • a shared array be net metered in the same way that an individual, on-site array would be net metered, with monthly accounting
  • excess production be rolled over continually, unless and until it amounts to more than 50 percent of a customer’s average annual use
  • a customer obtaining electricity through a power-purchase agreement be treated the same as a customer who outright owns the panels
  • renewable energy credits remain with owner, as is now the norm in Iowa
  • it be accepted that the project might be expanded at some point

One of the potential partners, the City of Decorah, has been considering installing solar panels for a year or more, said city manager Chad Bird.

“If I understand the way current law reads, if the City of Decorah wanted to set up a large solar array out in some big field, it has to be connected to a meter at that site. We can’t use that generation for any of our meters scattered around town. It has to be meter-specific.

“This proposal is based on that premise – that if we want to do anything, we could set up a few panels at city hall, a few at our campground and a few at the water plant specifically for those needs. But it can’t be aggregated for all of our needs.

“That’s what Andy is trying to push. It seems to make so much sense.”

Johnson claims that the shared-solar project, while undoubtedly reducing Alliant’s electricity sales, would offer the utility some benefits. Connecting to one solar field, as opposed to dozens of much-smaller arrays, would reduce Alliant’s costs, he said. The City of Decorah alone, for example, has several dozen meters.

Johnson’s proposal would also have the array situated such that it would produce less power overall, but more power late in the afternoon, when electricity use spikes, particularly on hot days.

Thus far, Alliant has had little to say. In response to an e-mail, company spokesman Justin Foss wrote: “We are interested in community-solar type installations. As to the specifics of this particular arrangement, we don’t know enough yet to comment.”

Johnson and his collaborators decided to pursue the shared-solar concept partly in response to a request by the Iowa Utilities Board for pilot proposals. For the past 18 months, the board has been soliciting feedback with regard to its current and possible future policy regarding net metering. In April the board invited proposals for net-metering pilot projects.

In addition to the board’s interest, Johnson said, “Alliant has said publicly…that they are studying community solar and are trying to find ways to try it, to do a pilot or two. We’re hopeful, because we’re ready to roll, that maybe they will see this as a viable option.”

Should Alliant reject the proposal, Johnson and his partners could take the question to the Iowa Utilities Board. Spokesman Donald Tormey wrote in an e-mail: “If a project developer wants a Board ruling on a specific proposal, the developer really needs to file either a petition for declaratory order or, if the developer has approached the utility and been turned down, by filing a complaint with the IUB where the issue(s) would be addressed through that process.”

Legislation to open the door to community solar has been the subject of a lot of discussion in statehouses, including the one in Des Moines, and in the U.S. Congress, Johnson said. But so far, talk has not lead to much action.

And, said Johnson, “We don’t want to wait for it.”

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