Perfect storm leads to historic moment at VEC

2014-07-02T08:00:00Z Perfect storm leads to historic moment at VECDorothy Robson dorothy.robson@lee.net La Crosse Tribune

History made on Wednesday, June 25, when Vernon Electric Cooperative (VEC), in Westby, held a ribbon cutting ceremony at the state of Wisconsin’s first solar energy farm. Approximately 900 people were served lunch at the member appreciation picnic, following the solar farm ribbon cutting ceremony.

The solar farm initiative was a collaborative project involving Vernon Electric Cooperative (VEC), Dairyland Power and Clean Energy Collective (CEC).

Vernon Electric CEO, Joe McDonald said the history-making solar project happened because the perfect storm came together, from timing, to pricing, to the cooperative members embracing the alternative energy proposal.

“This was a very big undertaking. We are thrilled to have constructed the first community-owned solar project in the state of Wisconsin and to have our members embrace the project from day one,” McDonald said.

VEC broke ground on the new VEC Community Solar Farm in April, and the solar farm went live in May 30, after a test run on May 23. The VEC project is located west of Vernon Electric headquarters, along Kolbo Road, just outside of Westby. It is a 305 kW, 1,001-panel clean power facility. Members of VEC purchased solar panels at a cost of $600 per panel. Power produced from the purchased panel is credited directly on the member’s monthly utility bills, with an expected payback of 12-13 years. The payback timeline is far less than the average 15-20 year payback offered at other utilities, thanks in part to a federal tax credit rebate offered through CEC, to VEC investors, which lowered the cost to $2 per watt. The VEC panels sold out within a record two weeks.

Colorado-based CEC, the nation’s leading developer of community solar solutions, developed its first community-owned solar garden in Colorado in 2010. Since that time, CEC has built or is developing 33 community solar projects, working with 13 utility partners, across eight states. The Westby solar farm projects are numbers 17 and 18.

Before partnering with CEC themselves, VEC had initially leased a section of its land to CEC for a solar energy project with Dairyland Power. The Dairyland solar project is slightly larger, than the VEC project producing approximately 520 kilowatts, enough energy to power approximately 60 homes.

Overall the $2 million Westby solar farms produce 7-percent of all solar energy produced in the state. The solar panels are five feet wide, by three feet high, with a combined total of approximately 3,300 panels located in Westby. The panels hold a 25 year warranty, but are expected to produce solar energy for 50 years.

Bill Berg of Dairyland Power, said a major difference between the two solar projects in Westby is that VEC members have a personal stake in the project by reaping the direct benefits of ownership, with monthly utility rate reductions, while energy produced from the Dairyland Cooperative panels is integrated into the entire grid system. Computer software tracks the electricity fed into the grid and calculates the credits.

VEC member solar panels remain with the member as long as they live in the cooperative service area and panels can be bought and sold among other VEC members, while the Dairyland solar panels are all owned by Dairyland Cooperative.

CEC founder Paul Spencer acknowledged that coal remains the cheapest fuel per kilowatt hour, but solar is becoming increasingly economical. Current solar panels produce about 30 percent more electricity than they did just a handful of years ago and solar panels perform best when the energy demand is highest.

“I can’t under estimate the monumental undertaking and foresight into the future that occurred here in Westby. This solar farm sets the standard for the future,” Spencer said.

Matthew Davies, a representative of CEC, said the installation process in Westby went like clockwork and he is was very pleased with the outcome of the project.

For more information regarding the Dairyland Power solar project visit www.dairynet.com.

For further information about the Vernon Electric solar project contact Dave Maxwell at dmaxwell@vernonelectric.org.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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