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Solar energy growing regional, state interest

By Staff | Sep 24, 2015

grovecorner@aol.com

LE MARS – The word “solar,” coming out of the Middle English language of the 15th century and derived from the Latin word “solar,” is a word that today is generating considerable attention as renewable energy.

Bill Haman, renewable energy program manager of the Ames-based Iowa Energy Center, is among those helping Iowans understand solar energy and its place in the renewable energy picture.

Haman was a presenter on Sept. 2 at a solar energy conference facilitated by the Plymouth County Iowa State University Extension office and USDA’s rural development office in Le Mars.

He said Iowa’s growth in solar energy over the past few years parallels the industry’s growth nationwide.

“The growth of solar energy in the U.S. doubled in 2014 compared to 2013 and indications are that 2015 will be another record year,” Haman said. “Interest in solar energy in Iowa seems to be more focused in eastern Iowa at this time with hundreds of installations completed over the past two to three years.”

Solar energy has been particularly popular in southeastern Iowa, he said, since that region’s wind resource is less than in the state’s northwest.

“Solar energy installations in northwest Iowa may also be lagging as compared to other parts of the state because the majority of solar energy dealers are mostly concentrated east of I-35,” Haman said.

Haman said the catalyst to the solar energy boom in Iowa has been a combination of the lower prices of the solar modules and what he termed the lucrative incentives now available to entities investing in solar energy.

Solar module prices, he said, have fallen nearly 70 percent in the last five years, and federal and state credits can lower the installed cost of a system by nearly 50 percent with equipment depreciation over an accelerated five-year schedule.

Grants and guaranteed loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program are another incentive, although it is a competitive program and not automatically awarded.

Additionally, the Iowa Energy Center’s Alternate Energy Revolving Loan Program offers zero percent financing for up to 50 percent of the project’s financed cost.

Up until 2014, customers of Alliant Energy were eligible for sizable rebates when they installed a distributed energy project.

Since the Alliant Energy service territory is concentrated in eastern Iowa, the first real spike in solar energy activity within Iowa occurred as a result of Alliant Energy customers trying to capture the rebate incentive prior to it being phased out at the end of 2013 Haman said.

“The prices of solar energy equipment have leveled off, but the incentives do not sunset until the end of 2016 so the level of interest and activity in Iowa remains strong,” he said. “The continuation of the tax credit incentives beyond 2016 may play a large role in the continued growth of the industry.

More recently, rural electric cooperatives have constructed large solar photovoltaic fields in which their members are able to purchase a share of solar modules. They receive a credit on their bill for the electricity generated by those modules.

Haman said this model allows more people to become engaged in solar energy without the hassle of constructing the array on their own property or with any of the maintenance.

Kimberly Clay, a rural development specialist with USDA-RD, described her agency’s role in support of solar energy efforts.

“What we wanted to do and, I feel, achieved, was to provide a public learning opportunity for conference participants to learn about resources available and to move forward in implementing solar energy plans within their communities,” Clay said.

Incorporated in the day’s program was a look at evaluation of the technology, costs, economic feasibility and potential for future solar energy projects within their communities.

“We wanted these community representatives and others within northwest Iowa to be aware of new USDA funding sources, to assist them as they begin their planning,” Clay said.

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