Making History, Filling a Need

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Vernon Electric Cooperative’s ‘Solar for All’ Bluff Prairie Project follows Wisconsin’s Tradition of Leadership

Photo courtesy of Trevor Clark, manager of communications and member relations, VEC

There is a first time for everything, and in the electric cooperative world, that first often comes with Wisconsin. Almost a century ago, when electric cooperatives were still forming under the newly created Rural Electrification Administration, local leaders in the Badger state got together to create the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) to help coordinate efforts. It was the launch of the first association of its kind in the nation. The year was 1936. (There are now 39 statewide associations.)

Vernon Electric General Manager/CEO Craig Buros addresses the crowd saying, “We can do some great things working together.”

Before long, some for-profit utilities launched an effort to block electric cooperative systems, which included negative propaganda aimed at turning members away. Recognizing the value of a coordinated communications effort, WECA created this monthly magazine for electric cooperative members, another first of its kind.

In the years that followed, Wisconsin’s statewide earned a reputation for leadership and innovation as it worked to fill the needs that arose for members. Wisconsin founded the insurance company that serves most electric co-ops in the country and organized a purchasing co-op to ensure electric co-ops have access to the supplies and equipment they need at the best prices.

Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives have also led the way in clean energy innovations. In 2014, Vernon Electric offered its members the opportunity to participate in the first community solar array in the state. At a cost of $600 per member, the 1,001-panel array sold out in just two weeks. Members see the benefits in the form of solar output credits on their electric bills for the life of the panels, but the up-front cost excluded Vernon’s many lower-income households from participating.

Four area news stations as well as Wisconsin Public Radio were on hand to cover the history-making project.

Vernon Electric General Manager and CEO Craig Buros says they saw the need and have been waiting for the right opportunity. The Bluff Prairie Community Solar plan works for all members. “My goal has always been to develop a project that was cost-neutral. We have members who struggled to pay their monthly bill, let alone be able to pay extra for solar,” Buros explained.

Recognizing the strength and savings in numbers, Vernon Electric signed an agreement to work together with nine other electric cooperatives in the state—basically to buy solar in bulk. “So instead of going out for pricing for this 1.5-megawatt project, we were able to go out and get pricing for 12 projects at 22 megawatts,” he explained. Seeking to be more inclusive, Vernon Electric Cooperative members can buy into the 3,276-panel solar array at just $50 per panel per year, with an estimated annual credit of $56, a savings of more than 10%. (By contrast, Vernon can use 60% of the solar array for community solar, and the other 40% is committed to the co-op’s wholesale power supplier, Dairyland Power Cooperative.)

Among the distinguished guests were Governor Tony Evers, Senator Brad Pfaff, and Representative Loren Oldenburg, who joined members of the Vernon Electric Cooperative Board of Directors in cutting the ribbon. Front row, left to right, are VEC Director James Goodman, Board President Bernadine Hornby, Buros, Evers, Pfaff, and Oldenburg. Back row, left to right, are VEC Directors Jerry Kramer, Richard Nemec, Michael Paulsrud, Orlan Bakkum, Daniel Giese, Dan Korn, and Ole Yttri.

Vernon Electric had a plan for “solar for most” that was about to become “solar for all.”

While the Bluff Prairie Community Solar project was still in its infancy, Couleecap Community Action Agency Executive Director Hetti Brown and her team sought ways to help make clean energy more affordable for lower-income households. The organization works to fight poverty in Vernon, La Crosse, Monroe, and Crawford counties.

“We know lower-income members have a strong interest in clean energy and solar, but the cost is a barrier,” Brown told the crowd gathered near the Bluff Prairie project in Red Mound for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the fall. “A little-known fact is that poverty burdens households in Vernon County, where some people here and in surrounding counties pay about 15-30% of their income on energy bills. And this is not a burden that can be managed by asking a household to budget differently or save more. This has to be addressed through infrastructural changes.”

The 3.276 panel array includes state-of-the-art solar panels that operate on a tracking system to follow the path of the sun for maximum power generation.

Armed with an idea for low-income community solar and the drive to make it happen, Brown went to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s Office of Energy Innovation. Director Joe Pater took the idea from the commissioners and secured a grant. Now, all they needed was a utility to work with them.

“And then we reached out to our friends at Vernon Electric Cooperative because we know they are forward-thinking, and well, they like to be first,” Brown said at the Bluff Prairie launch, with a solar-filled field of dreams over her shoulder. “And now we stand here today launching a significant project, which is, I believe, the first of its kind in Wisconsin. Today marks a significant achievement in our fight against energy poverty.”

Evers praised the project as “something that benefits everyone.”

The rest is, well, more history in the making, thanks to the three-way partnership between the state of Wisconsin, a non-profit community action agency, and a local electric cooperative. Under the newly formed “Energize Wisconsin” program, using the grant funds from the state, Couleecap will buy into the Bluff Prairie solar project as a proxy bulk subscriber, and Vernon Electric will allocate the benefits to low-income households with the highest energy burden, at no cost to them.

“It really is solar for all,” Buros said. “It’s pretty amazing, and I think we have a good story to tell here. This should be an example of what we can do when organizations come together with common interest and work to achieve the best outcome for all.”

While this is a first, it’s not the last project of its kind in the works. Pater says they split the grant they secured into two parts and are working with Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services on a similar project. “Some of the details will be different, but our goal is to have the same kind of impact,” he said.

Thanks to partnerships, a portion of the solar project will serve low-income members.

Speaking under overcast skies amid a chilly mist at the Bluff Prairie ribbon-cutting, Governor Tony Evers said, “It’s a beautiful day every time you’re in the Coulee Region, but this a special one because these folks are really doing something extraordinary. This is something that benefits everyone.”

It’s also one more first. But who’s counting.—Julie Lund

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