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Community Solar Garden Helps Power Cedar Falls

Cedar Falls Utilities
Simple Solar project in Cedar Falls

Just as the freshly planted crops in Iowa’s farm fields need sunshine, so does a new type of garden in a Northeast Iowa community.  It’s called the Cedar Falls Simple Solar project.

For the past ten years, Americans have been able to receive a tax incentive of up to 30% when they invest in a renewable energy project. Things like wind farms or solar gardens. That credit was set to expire at the end of this year, but it’s now been extended until 2019.

The extension has made it even easier for both individuals and communities to get involved.  But this success is not without its complications. Pennsylvania Energy Group RER installs Solar panels all over the country. Project Manager, Mike Barnes says even established energy companies are running into some difficulties integrating solar into their energy portfolios.

“Utilities across the country are trying to grapple with how to integrate solar, how to expand their generation sources," he says.  "The demand is very high for solar. Ninety-plus percent of Americans feel like we should be trying to integrate more solar."

Iowa’s two largest energy providers, Mid-American and Aliant have both recently launched “pilot plans” meant to get the discussion started about building large scale solar arrays. Meanwhile a small, municipal utility in Cedar Falls is already harnessing energy from the sun.

CFU General Manager Jim Kreig says for nearly two months, their so-called Simple Solar project has been doing what the utilities in Des Moines hope to accomplish.  

"We didn't know whether we would even get the 500 kilowatts sold," he said.  "And yet it was 3 times that amount the community stepped up."

RER Energy Group signed on as the developer and shares in the program were offered to the community. They started at $399 each but after the overwhelming interest, the shares were reduced to $270.

One of the largest investors is the University of Northern Iowa. 

"Were studying both wind and solar and this was a quick way to partner with a long term partner, Cedar Falls utilities to help their project and to get us into the solar market more so than we were,” says Mike Zwanziger, who directs UNI's Physical Plant.

The plan also attracted more than 1,200 individual investors, including, Denny Mills. He says he likes the idea that shares are easy to transfer from one owner to another as long as they live on the Cedar Falls electrical grid.  He also believes it’s an investment in his home.

"When I say look it your utility bill is only going to be $20-25 a month here because I spent $1200 back there, 10 years ago, and by the way for the next ten years you will get that advantage too, that's an excellent addition, and improvement, value added to your home by having spent that money for the simple solar shares,” he says.

On the development side, UNI communications professor Ryan McGeogh believes the addition of the solar garden to the CFU energy portfolio will likely attract more companies to the area.

"You can come to this place that has community-owned lightning fast internet, that has incredibly ecologically friendly energy, that keeps sort of investing in itself, I think it's the right thing to do financially," he says. " I think ecologically it's a no brainer and I think that it could actually help bring in sort of more folks to the economy that could help us continue to grow it larger.”

While the Des Moines utilities figure out what approach might be appropriate for the customers and themselves, there has been and overarching narrative to the Cedar Falls project.

"The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, you know we all have to take little steps in that direction,” says Denny Mills.

With little steps or big ones, solar energy is becoming a larger part of Iowa's energy mix, whether the sun is shining or not.

Thomas Winkelman was a student intern at IPR's Cedar Falls station this semester.

Pat Blank is the host of All Things Considered