Ready, Set, Solar

Community garden will offer WEC members another

More electric co-ops now own solar gardens than for-profit utilities. Photo Contributed by Adams Electric Cooperative

It’s almost time to catch some rays. Soon, Wiregrass Electric Cooperative will harness the power of the sun in its own backyard with its foray into solar energy generation. WEC’s first community solar garden will enable co-op members to lease panels and enjoy the benefits of solar power without the fuss and expense of installing a rooftop solar system. Power generated from these solar arrays will also feed into the energy mix for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, WEC’s wholesale power supplier.

Community Solar

We anticipate the 100 kW solar system planned for a site next to the Hartford WEC office will be installed by summer of this year. Once online, WEC will offer members an opportunity to enroll in a service that charges them a monthly rate to use energy generated by the community solar garden.

“This will be a way for members to take advantage of using solar energy without worrying about getting in the business themselves,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “We are taking on that burden to build and maintain that system and doing it in a way that will benefit all co-op members.”

Rooftop setups on an individual home can cost as much as $15,000 to $30,000. Even with the 30% federal tax credit, that’s a lot of capital homeowners must dish out to third-party contractors just to install panels on their roofs — and that’s not even factoring the cost of maintaining the pan-els over their lifetime. Individually, it could take up to 30 years to see the payoff in terms of savings on an electric bill.

Community solar gardens open the door for more people to participate in solar energy. There are no break-the-bank startup costs, no records to keep, no insurance to maintain and no worries about changing the aesthetic appeal of a home or eliminat-ing shade.

“We’re still working out all the details, but we’re proud our members will soon be able to come to Wiregrass Electric, their trusted energy adviser, for another option to power their homes,” Kimbro says.

Growing Gardens

While solar energy has long been an option for electric power generation, it has only recently become affordable and efficient enough to be an attractive option for utility-scale generation. Prices have fallen around 52% over the last decade and efficiency has improved with more high-tech modules.

“PowerSouth has always been on board with solar, or any energy source that allows us to offer reliable and affordable power for our member co-ops to distribute,” says Cory Ellis, PowerSouth’s energy program coordinator. “As it’s become more viable, PowerSouth is taking advantage of the opportunity to mix in solar to our diverse energy portfolio.”

The 80-megawatt Wing Solar project completed in Covington County last year represents the largest amount of solar-generated power to become part of that portfolio as PowerSouth continues to deploy new projects in sister cooperative territories.

“We are getting more and more requests from residential members who are interested in solar in those service areas,” Ellis says.

PowerSouth is using its resources and connections to install 324 solar cells next to WEC’s Hartford headquarters. Those cells will be capable of producing up to 211,100 kWh in a year. Even with Alabama’s higher-than-average number of sunny days, it’s important to remember that energy production from solar pan-els is not constant — and without storage capacity with batteries, a solar array cannot support around-the-clock electric service to a home or business.

“Even if you decide to do it independently, it’s not like you disconnect from the utility grid,” Ellis says. “For example, when the Wiregrass had that cold snap right before Christmas — it was 6 o’clock in the morning and 20 degrees outside. The sun’s not out so there’s no solar gen-eration at that point. If you want power, you’ve got to have other resources to rely on, so we’ll still have all of our traditional generation assets available to make that electricity readily available.”

Stabilizing Factor

In the traditional co-op spirit, the community solar garden is a collaboration. Extra power generated on especially sunny days can be dispatched to other utility partners, like Alabama Power, to meet their peaking needs in the summer. In turn, utility partners can share power with WEC in the winter, when it typically experiences a peak in demand.

“The benefit to this is members who want solar can get solar at a much cheaper cost, and it gives Wiregrass and PowerSouth another form of energy to depend on that’s much more cost-effective to generate than it used to be,” says Matt Diamond, PowerSouth’s vice president of member services and communications. “That benefit comes from the economies of scale involved and pooling of resources among major utility partners.”

Wholesale natural gas prices spiked in 2022 due to many factors, including governmental regulations, inflation and economic interruptions overseas. Farm-ing solar energy gives Wiregrass Electric another dependable power source to bol-ster reliability in electric service and stabi-lize prices charged to members.

Educational Opportunities

WEC lineworkers play a major role in educating the Wiregrass area about elec-tricity generation and distribution. Incor-porating solar energy is another oppor-tunity to show members what is actually involved in distributed generation, includ-ing the costs, from local experts they can trust.

“Solar energy is something we’re embracing,” says Jason Thrash, VP of Engineering and Operations. “So, as always, we want our members and the community as a whole to be informed. It’s complex. The community solar farm will give us the opportunity to demonstrate what it’s all about so everyone can be edu-cated on the benefits, and the challenges, of solar electricity.”

Stay tuned for more details about the community solar program in coming months. 

Why community solar?

The average homeowner installing a rooftop solar system will:

  • Need an 11.5-kW solar system.
  • Spend approximately $28,175 on initial investment, which amounts to $19,722 after the 30% federal tax credit.
  • Finance their system at a 5% interest rate, adding roughly $3,900 to the total cost.
  • Recoup the purchase and installation costs through energy savings after about 12 years, though it could take much longer.
  • Increase homeowner’s insurance premium slightly to cover solar panels’ value.

With community solar, co-op members experience:

  • No upfront costs
  • No maintenance or unexpected repair costs
  • No insurance costs
  • No hassle
  • No risk

For a small monthly fee, you can get all the advantages of solar power without dipping into your savings.