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Simple Solar project is funded ... simply

Residents, businesses, and organizations in Cedar Falls, Iowa?"and beyond&mdash came together to jointly fund the largest community solar power project in Iowa, the 1.5-MW Simple Solar project.

By Diane Mettler

If there had been any doubt about the public's support of solar power, the Cedar Falls Utility (CFU) Simple Solar project in Iowa should put it to rest.

Located near Prairie Lakes Park in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on eight acres donated by the city, the project looks like many other solar facilities. With 6,516 solar panels, the array has a 1.5-MW capacity, enough energy to power 254 homes. But what makes it unique is what you can't see—the 1,250 families, businesses, and organizations that provided funds in order to make the project happen.

Mike Barnes, project manager for RER Energy Group, was involved in the development from the very start.

"As a solar contractor, I was going out and teaching but also presenting at CFU. That started the relationship," Barnes says. "I approached them about the idea early on, but I think they were already developing this concept. A year later they approached me with the bidding information."

Unsure how much public support they would find, CFU had developers bid on three sizes—small, medium, and large.

The project started out with a community gift—eight centrally located acres donated by the City of Cedar Falls. "They wanted this project to be like a garden," says Barnes. "The area has two big ponds, fishing docks, a really nice workout trail, and is surrounded by a commercial park." The commercial park is large enough to use the energy generated from the array.

The community support concept was fairly simple. Sell units, which represent a percentage of the future production of the array, to the customer. Those who provided funds will receive a monthly credit allocation on their CFU electric bills for 20 years based on the output from the solar panels, and all of the clean energy from the solar project will be used within the community.

CFU, which is the off taker of the electricity, contracted the project under a PPA and did not need to outlay a lot of capital up front.

"As soon as this project developed, I got excited. We could do these anywhere," says Barnes. "But the thing is, it has to be initiated by the utility, because of this concept of units of participation in the production."

As soon as the participation units were available, it became obvious that CFU's customers were all in. These units started out at $399, and there was so much interest it drove the price down to $280 based on the pricing levels provided by CFU. CFU created yard signs, so that people who bought units could proudly display them. Barnes says the signs popped up all over Cedar Falls, and even the University of Northern Iowa got into the game by purchasing approximately 20 percent of the participation units.


With the Cedar Falls community solar project, the biggest challenge wasn't the financing, but the winter weather, with temperatures getting down to -40F. There was a race to get the foundations in place before the ground was frozen solid.


"People just came out in droves," says Barnes. "Even some people who weren't in the utility's load zone bought participation for their church and donated these units. It was really amazing. In fact, one of the benefits was how this project brought the community together in many ways. As I mentioned, though, this model has to come from the utility directly. It's not something that RER can create autonomously as a developer, even though our focus is on keeping things local."

In the end, 8,600 participation units were sold, helping to support building the largest community solar facility in Iowa.

One of the reasons this project was ideal for CFU was that the utility controls its own interconnection. "This is not the case for many areas, like New York, where the process to gain interconnection to the grid has been much more onerous," says Barnes.

The big challenge is the grid was not initially designed for a backward flow of energy, says Barnes, and the utilities are really wrestling with how to cope with all of this distributed generation coming online.

Another obstacle can be the power factor—or efficiency of the grid. "All kinds of different little generators coming online can at various times be complicated to deal with," says Barnes. "In CFU's case, there was enough local load and offtakers in that commercial park that anything the array produces is immediately taken up by the local industries."

In the Cedar Falls solar story, the biggest challenge wasn't the financing, but the winter weather, where temperatures can get to -40F. The race was on to get the foundations in place before the ground was frozen solid. To keep crews safe from the cold, additional job trailers were brought to the site for people to come in and warm up.

Another challenge, says Keith Beisner, SunLink's senior manager of Field Services, was the soil itself. The site was generally good to work on, but some challenges included foundation posts encountering cobbles and firm subsurface conditions. "Normally, we use a machine that drives steel piles into the ground. Typically, soil is consistent, piles drive to the depths required, and then the racking is built on top of it. Sometimes, though, there can be obstructions in the soil." Running into obstacles often requires additional machinery and labor, but the experience of SunLink's field associates allowed them to avoid delays in the construction schedule, says Beisner.


The 1.5-MW Simple Solar project sits on eight acres donated by the city of Cedar Falls and features Solectria inverters, Hanwha Q Cells 305-watt modules, and SunLink racking. Funding to make the community solar project happen came from 1,250 families, businesses, and organizations.


"We also encountered frozen soil because this was installed in January," Beisner adds. "But again, the response from our engineering team and the experience of our field associates allowed us to mitigate this and work with the difficult subsurface conditions. We used special concrete and a special concrete design that allows for reduction of potential for freezing and uplifts due to frost."

Several aspects of the racking system were highlighted on this particular site. First, was the interchangeable foundations.

"When we do experience difficult subsurface conditions, we can quickly and proactively interchange foundations to mitigate potential problems. On the GeoPro system everybody likes to use the pile-driven system," says Beisner. "It's a system that's supported on steel piles. Those can be interchanged when we experience unexpectedly loose or firm soils. If we encounter loose soils, we can interchange to a helical foundation, which is actually common in areas around Iowa and north of Iowa. For very firm or hard ground conditions, we can interchange to threaded ground screws. Those advance into the soil and then the threads keep them from lifting up out of the ground."

The second aspect, he says, is the ease of installation with uneven terrain. "We use short tables that can accommodate steep slopes. On this site specifically, the short table just allowed for better aesthetics, and the system looks better as the terrain undulates. And then the ease of installation. Installing in winter conditions typically makes it very difficult to put in a system, but with this system there were fewer components to fasten, and the fasteners are larger, making it still efficient to install when conditions were less than optimal."


RER Energy Group's Mike Barnes says for this particular project, they used Solectria inverters, Hanwha Q Cells 305-watt modules, and of course, SunLink racking. In this case, SunLink played the role of partner more than simply a supplier.

"I like SunLink's turnkey approach," says Barnes. "They drive the pilings, install the racking, and install the glass. If we have any problems with the project in terms of the physical, mechanical part of it, I only have one point of contact to go back to. I really like that a lot."

Beisner says SunLink also appreciates the teamwork. "Our capabilities in taking on more of the scope and more of the project lifecycle, allow companies like RER to work on more projects and take on more megawatts of solar."

Barnes says there was also terrific support from Jack Chen of GES, RER's investor group. "Jack made sure that the modules got delivered on time, which was so critical considering the freezing conditions on the site. Had that little piece not happened there, this thing would not have got done on time, and no one would have remembered why, except that it didn't."

In the end, it not only came in on time, it was also on budget, commissioning April 1, 2016. "We're very pleased with the output numbers, which are exceeding expectations," says Barnes.

In the end, without CFU's initiative and their customers' incredible support, the project would not have happened.

Barnes said you could see the support first-hand. "At ribbon cutting events, you usually see a handful of people and a politician or two. At this event, CFU set up a grandstand, and I was surprised to see all the people there. It was unbelievable. CFU had banners with every person that was a shareholder, which was maybe a couple thousand."

CFU General Manager Jim Krieg was there to thank the community for their response to Simple Solar. "Because so many of our customers decided to participate in solar energy, we are able to deliver a project that will provide flexible, clean energy at an excellent price."

Krieg added, "I want to express my appreciation to the hundreds of Cedar Falls families. It truly was your interest in sustainable energy that made it possible to build this."

Barnes says as a developer, it was just a great project. "Working with the utility was fantastic. You weren't working against them; you were working with them. And Iowans are extremely hard workers. That was fantastic. And then the community support just made for a terrific job. Everybody won. The investment group won, CFU won, all of the individual participating parties won. It's a great plug for Iowa. Cedar Falls should be proud that they built the largest community solar array in the state."

Will you see more of these community projects in the future? Probably. "We are marketing to utilities and regional energy cooperatives who are all very interested in this," says Barnes. "We are going to try to encourage them to follow suit because we have seen first-hand how this can be a great win for so many stakeholders."