By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
Rockwell City – Call it an idea whose time has come. A new solar array located east of the Calhoun County REC’s office in Rockwell City is harnessing power from the sun and offering new insights into the viability of solar energy.
“We’re seeing more interest in solar power,” said Keaton Hildreth, administration manager and member service representative for the Calhoun County REC, which serves approximately 1,200 members. “When we looked into a solar array three years ago, it wasn’t economically feasible, but now it makest more financial sense for the cooperative.”
The REC installed its new solar array during a 39-day period starting in mid-July. The 76-kilowatt demonstration and education project has the ability to power approximately nine residential homes. The solar array includes 10 solar tables from the company Silfab Solar, with each table contains 30 photovoltaic (PV) modules for a total of 300 modules. Since these are fixed tables, meaning they don’t move with the sun, the solar array is oriented towards the south.
Solar energy must be converted into electricity and fed into the power grid, so reliable, high-power inverters form the heart of any PV system. The Fronius Primo inventors that are connected to Calhoun County’s and are warrantied for 10 years. The solar tables are engineered to withstand 300 mile-per-hour winds, and the modules are warrantied for 25 years.
“This project reflects our commitment to find ways to better serve our member-owners with innovation and new technologies, including renewable energy,” said Rox Carisch, chief executive officer of the Calhoun County REC.
Payback estimated at 12 to 13 years
The solar array reflects the total cost of the project, including the solar equipment, 6-foot-tall chain-link fencing, landscaping and installation. While a projects like this would have had a payback of 30 years had it been installed several years ago, this period is now 12 to 13 years, thanks to a variety of factors.
The cost of solar energy equipment has dropped in recent years, thanks to competition among solar equipment manufacturers, especially in China. The state of Iowa also offers production tax credits of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour produced for 10 years of production, Hildreth said.
In addition, the Calhoun County REC recieves a renewable incentive rate for every kilowatt hour of energy produced bythe solar array. This is a 25-year contract rate set by North Dakota-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative,, Hildreth noted. “We’re looking to maximize production for all these reasons,” he said.
App offers real-time data
Hildreth uses a Fronius Solar.web app to track real-time data on the solar array’s energy production. When smoky conditions from western wildfires partially obscured the sun on Labor Day 2017, the app showed that the power output of the solar array in Rockwell City was about one third of normal.
“We’ll be adding this real-time data to the Calhoun County REC’s website soon so our members can track these numbers, too,” Hildreth noted.
The solar array is estimated to produce between 103,000 and 120,000 kilowatt hours of power per year. “This is already helping to offset energy demand charges from our supplier, Corn Belt Power Cooperative, in Humboldt,” Hildreth said.
While solar offers new options, it isn’t the total solution for energy generation – at least not now. “In the winter, for example, we expect our solar array to produce about a third of the power that it can generate in the summer,” Hildreth said. “Also, since there is no good way to store the energy produced by solar and wind power systems, reliable, base-load generation is still important for reliable electrical service.”
Is solar right for you?
If you’re thinking about installing a solar energy system on your property, there are some key issues to consider. “Contact your utility before you buy equipment or do anything else,” Hildreth said.
The utility can help you determine your power usage history. “We typically look at three years of usage history and assess daily, monthly and yearly usage,” Hildreth said. “We can use this data to help you size your solar energy system to fit your needs.”
Next, do your due diligence to find reputable solar equipment suppliers. Finally, make safety a priority every step of the way. Work with your utility to make sure there is no back feed into the power grid, and ensure the system is metered properly. “We use a digital bi-directional meter to measure energy output and usage,” Hildreth said.
Finally, realize that solar energy is not the right choice for every situation. “The key is to find the right fit,” Hildreth said. “We look forward to learning a lot from our solar array so we can serve our members better.”
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