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Solar energy growing as electricity source

by Kent Brick

The headquarters of Great River Energy (in Maple Grove, Minn.) is a showcase of the cooperative’s solar energy panels investment. PHOTO FROM GREAT RIVER ENERGY

Electricity from sunlight is not new. However, it is currently gaining in prominence as electric cooperatives and other groups across the United States up their investments in solar as a viable renewable energy technology.

According the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar power is the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in the nation, increasing by 81 percent in 2013 and by 76 percent in 2014. EIA indicates that most of the growth will come from electric generation facilities adding solar energy to generation portfolios.

Solar cells, also called photovoltaic (PV) cells, convert sunlight directly into electricity. PV gets its name from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage) which is called the “PV effect.” The PV effect was discovered in 1954, when scientists at Bell Telephone discovered that silicon created an electric charge when exposed to sunlight. Soon solar cells were being used to power space satellites, as well as much smaller applications, in watches and calculators. Today, solar PV power is a resource for homes and businesses most often through arrays of solar panels, with each panel acting as a PV cell. Cell panels continue to rely on silicon, or new generation charge producing compounds, to create electric charges.

Electricity produced by solar panels has direct current quality. An inverter is needed to convert direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) electricity, which is what homes, farms and businesses use.
Several member organizations in the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives (NDAREC) are taking steps to integrate small-scale solar generation into their electric power delivery systems. Among cooperatives making strides with solar generation are:
• Verendrye Electric Cooperative, Velva/Minot, for several years, has facilitated the installation of solar pasture wells for members who raise cattle. According to Tom Rafferty, Minot communications and public relations manager for the cooperative, Verendrye Electric members make the initial investment of building the water tanks and purchasing the DC water pumps. The solar panels and components are then leased from the cooperative on a monthly basis. He says more than 200 members participate in the solar program, which can be a more economical pasture well-pumping solution than use of small windmills or engine generators.
• Northern Plains Electric Cooperative, Carrington/Cando, along with its sister cooperative, Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative, Edgeley/Milnor, is in the primary stages of a solar project at one of its headquarter offices in Carrington. According to Katie Ryan-Anderson, manager of member communications for both cooperatives, the goal of the $17,000, 4.5-kilowatt project is to refine the cooperative’s understanding of solar energy costs and benefits through experience in a project which includes vendor interaction along with actual equipment operation and installation. Information from the ongoing project will be shared each month with cooperative employees and with the membership. NP/DV expects to have the solar equipment in operation in 2015.
• Great River Energy (GRE), a generation and transmission cooperative, with headquarters in Maple Grove, Minn., has constructed a 250-kilowatt (KW) solar panel array at its headquarters facility. This new array adds to the building’s existing solar PV array that currently produces 72 KW of electricity at full capacity. In addition, GRE is partnering with its member cooperatives, seeking to install another 400 KW of solar installations involving as many as 20 individual projects in local cooperative service areas.

In North Dakota, GRE owns and operates the Coal Creek and Stanton stations and will soon begin operating Spiritwood Station. GRE has more than 350 employees in its North Dakota operations. Output from these facilities are a key part of the power supply mix GRE sustains for 28 local electric cooperatives in Minnesota.

Michael Thorson, Browerville, Minn., GRE board chair, said the increased commitment to solar energy is an important step. “We need to keep learning, doing research, asking questions, and leading our cooperatives into the future,” he says. Thorson represents GRE on the NDAREC board of directors.

The North Dakota Alliance for Renewable Energy (NDARE) has also begun a close look at solar energy potential.

“I think there's a great deal of interest currently within NDARE in solar energy,” says Kim Christianson, NDARE president. Recent NDARE membership meetings have included solar energy industry updates from this region.

NDARE is a coalition of individuals, communities and energy, agricultural and rural economic development groups committed to developing renewable energy technologies in the state. Christianson says the costs of solar cells and solar energy arrays have come down in recent years, to the point where deeper study of the potential of solar energy for homes and businesses is warranted. He says this examination aligns well with NDARE.

“NDARE’s mission is to advocate for renewable energy and energy efficiency in North Dakota,” Christianson says. “Renewable energy projects and industries continue to grow in North Dakota and we will continue to advocate for state and federal policies and programs that advance clean energy development in our state and across the nation.”


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