This spring the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission decided to solicit bids from solar program experts to design a community solar program that was customized for our local situation. In June they conducted interviews with each of the 5 respondents and they awarded the contract to Cliburn and Associates, a nationally known and respected solar consulting company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Jill Cliburn, the firm’s lead consultant, visited Grand Rapids on July 17th to research local conditions. She spent the day meeting with Julie Kennedy (GRPU General Manager), Jeremy Goodell (Chief Electrician), and two members of the Itasca Clean Energy Team. The day was pretty intense, as we needed to cram a lot of information exchange (in both directions) into a short amount of time. Jill’s objective for the day was to learn as much as possible about our local situation as it relates to a potential community solar program. She spent the first hour with Julie and Jeremy, learning about GRPU operations in general. ICET members joined the group after that and we spent the next hour and a half discussing outreach that ICET and GRPU have done, which techniques have been most effective, and the current level of community awareness/interest in CSG. We mentioned the customer survey conducted by GRPU in Oct. 2016 and the voting results on program design choices from the 70 attendees at the Nov. 2017 solar forum and she asked for that data. She also asked Jeremy for data on the GRPU electric power load curve, both daily and monthly, and for wholesale power cost info from their contract with Minnesota Power. We discussed the cost effectiveness of energy storage briefly, and she noted there are other ways than batteries to do storage. She referenced the community solar program at the Steele-Waseca public utility in southern Minnesota, where subscribers for solar shares also get a water heater, which can be controlled by the utility to help manage peak loads.
We visited two city-owned potential sites for hosting a solar array: the old substation site on the north side of the Mississippi River and just east of Veterans Park, and a larger site between Airport Road and Home Depot. Jill favored the Airport Road site as it was large enough to accommodate a 1 megawatt array and still have room for expansion. She did not rule out installing solar panels on rooftop sites, but noted that those would add complexity and cost to the project. Final decisions on host site locations will be made later in the process.
Jill made the point that the current project does not have to incorporate all possible values of all community members–if we try to do that, we might get bogged down and the project could collapse. She feels it’s important to get this project up and running, and then it can serve as a catalyst for other solar efforts in this area (e.g. making solar available to low and moderate income folks, constructing arrays at the schools, the hospital, etc.).
After lunch we discussed program administration, including subscription terms. Options for defining solar shares include basing subscriptions on the capacity of a panel ($/kW), or on a standardized amount of energy ($/kWh). Jill recommends standardizing subscription units in order to simplify billing and to reduce admin costs. She cited Cedar Falls, Iowa as an example of a successful program that included utility financing, for up to 12 months, of up-front subscription costs. Julie liked this idea, and noted that for marketing purposes it would be easier for people to understand if we talk about buying panels rather than kilowatts. Jill will also be linking us up with solar program managers from the public utility in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Their community solar program is utilizing energy storage to reduce wholesale power demand charges.
One of the deliverables on this contract is a ballpark estimate of subscription pricing, which will be a key factor as marketing efforts begin later this fall. Jill suggested defining shares in a way that would make them affordable if people want to purchase one or more as gifts to their church or other non-profit (Grace House, Keisler House, etc.) She also recommended that we create a list of possible public entities or non-profits that might be willing to serve as “anchor” subscribers.
Approximately 25 community members attended an evening session at the Blandin Foundation to hear Jill’s first impressions of our local situation and to offer their perspectives on solar power. Julie suggested that GRPU host another public event during Public Power Week in early October. Jill’s work will be almost complete at that point, and the majority of her recommended solar program design components will be identified.
Things are getting exciting–stay tuned for further updates!