CEDAR FALLS — The Cedar Falls Utilities solar garden, Iowa’s largest community solar project, is marking its year anniversary of increasing renewable energy for the city.
The solar garden or “solar array” is at the northeast corner of Prairie Lakes Park off Hudson and Viking roads on eight acres of land donated by the city of Cedar Falls.
“The energy that we’ve gotten out of there has really been as good as or better than we anticipated throughout the year,” said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg. “The nice thing about solar energy is when our cost of energy is the highest ... generally in the summertime ... that’s when solar energy will produce the most energy.”
About 1,250 electric customers, or 6 percent of CFU’s total customer base, are participating in its Simple Solar project, and more are on a waiting list. Customers signed up last year and could purchase solar “shares” for $399 each. Many sought more shares after the price dropped to $270 per share because of good response.
“There’s a sector of our community that’s just really interested in renewable energy at a competitive price,” Krieg said, noting the price of solar panels has dropped substantially in the last 15 years.
Customers who purchased units will receive a utility bill credit based upon the output from the panels, starting in May 2016 and continuing for 20 years. Total capacity of the array is 1.5 megawatts.
“It’s about 1 half of 1 percent of the energy used in Cedar Falls in a year,” said CFU spokeswoman Betty Zeman. “It’s enough to supply about 260-270 average Cedar Falls homes, so it is a small part of our energy supply, but you have to start somewhere.”
Most of the electricity used in Cedar Falls is generated through a regional energy market administered by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which extends across 17 states and Manitoba. Cedar Falls also is able to take advantage of 25 to 30 percent of wind energy because of this “grid.” Energy generated by nearly all the wind turbines, fossil fuel and nuclear plants in Iowa flows into MISO’s power market daily, including the solar garden.
“We’re producing a lot more energy out of those two sustainable sources (wind and solar) today than what we ever thought we could do 20 years ago,” Krieg said. “There’s a lot of people that said ‘you’ll never get 30 percent wind energy in the state of Iowa,’ and we’re getting it (with more turbines being built).”
Cedar Falls lands in the MISO North portion of the grid, where the use of coal for energy has decreased from 55 percent in 2015 to 48 percent in 2016. Wind energy has gone up from 24 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016.
“Looking at future generations, I think they want something that’s sustainable, and there’s definitely an end life to coal,” Krieg said.
Customers who signed up received a “Simple Solar” sign to put in their yard.
“We could not keep them in stock; it’s crazy,” Zeman said.
“The people are so proud that they wanted to let their neighbors know they were invested in the Simple Solar program,” Krieg said. “They believe passionately about renewable energy.
“We’ve had a lot of communities contact us and say how did you put this together? It’s really a win-win situation — people interested can participate, and those who don’t want to don’t have to.”
CFU also partnered with a private developer to capture the tax credits, which is passed on to the customers, increasing their credit.
Council member Nick Taiber said he has always been interested in renewable energy and purchased a share as soon as it was available.
“As a homeowner ... it’s not feasible to do a lot of the renewable energy concepts, wind, solar, etc.,” he said, noting costs for home solar panels can be as much as $10,000.
Taiber has noticed a decrease of about 2-3 percent in his monthly utility bill after purchasing only one share but added given the opportunity and “knowing what the investment return is, I probably would have purchased more.
“There’s just a sense of community pride in investing in this project, so that gives me some pay back too. This is one more example where the Cedar Falls community, led by CFU, came together to make this really ambitious project a reality.”