Iowa is well established as a national leader in wind energy and biofuels. Now the state is poised for serious growth in solar as well.
“The market is exploding in Iowa,” says Tim Dwight, a former Iowa Hawkeye and NFL star who has become one of his home state’s most visible solar energy advocates.
Homeowners, farmers, businesses and at least one school district in Iowa are going solar. Also, over the past year, several municipal utilities and rural electric co-ops have put up solar arrays, inviting customers to buy a share of the power generated.
“Solar growth in Iowa is where wind was in the first decade of the 2000s,” says Bill Haman of the Iowa Energy Center. “We saw an explosion in wind.”
In Frytown, just outside Iowa City, the Farmers Electric Cooperative has been steadily adding on to a community solar project established on its property in 2011. And a few weeks ago, the co-op announced plans to put together a 750-kilowatt solar farm, which would be the largest solar-energy project in the state. It’s projected to meet about 15 percent of the co-op’s demand for power.
In September, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities put an 18-kilowatt array on the roofs of several buildings at its headquarters in Ankeny.
And in November, several organizations snagged a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to streamline local permitting and zoning codes, and improve standards for connecting solar generation to the grid with the aim of cutting the time and costs of adding solar generation. State lawmakers who attended a recent solar tour have pledged to help.
Incentives high, costs low
Iowa’s solar capacity remains a tiny fraction of its overall energy mix -- at the end of 2012 the state had only about 1 megawatt of solar installed compared to more than 5,000 megawatts of wind.
But the same market forces driving solar growth in other parts of the country are being felt in the heartland, too.
The biggest factor driving all of the fireworks, according to Haman, not surprisingly, is money.
“Incentives are at an all-time high, and costs are at an all-time low,” he said. The cost per watt is between $3 and $3.50 now, compared with a range of about $7 to $10 several years ago.
Systems typically pay for themselves within a decade now, given federal and state tax credits, plus, in much of central and eastern Iowa, a subsidy available to customers of Alliant Energy. A decade ago, Haman said, recouping the costs of a solar installation could take 30 to 50 years.
Haman says money is not the only factor, though. He said Iowans have been waking up to solar power -- an observation shared by Warren McKenna, the general manager of the Farmers Electric Co-op.
Finding himself on sort of a solar-energy lecture circuit of late, McKenna gets to listen to lots of people. And he says they’ve been taking notice of solar panels in other places -- Minnesota, Colorado, California -- and have been pressing their utilities to get on board.
Traer Municipal Utilities installed a 40-kilowatt community solar project a few months ago, said manager Pat Stief. All 106 panels have been purchased by 42 customers. They paid $530 per panel, rated at 305 watts, and will see a credit on their monthly bill for twenty years.
The Hawkeye Rural Electric Cooperative in northeast Iowa intends to put 25 kilowatts of panels on its property in Cresco, and also will invite members to invest in a share of the power. Ted Kjos, manager of marketing and communications, is looking ahead to a possible second phase.
“We’ve done a survey of our membership. A significant amount of our membership is interested in the co-op providing this,” he said.
Utility incentives coming to an end
Solar in Iowa has gotten probably its greatest single boost from Alliant Energy. In 2008, when Alliant put together its efficiency plan, designed to outline efficiency efforts through 2013, it proposed to subsidize small, on-site renewable energy projects.
For the first few years, there were very few takers. But the story’s changed dramatically in the past year.
Haman, from the Iowa Energy Center, manages a state revolving loan fund that provides interest-free money to help people pay the upfront costs of installing renewable energy systems at their homes or businesses.
He said there’s been “a steep rise” this year in the number of people seeking loans for solar panels.
“They’ve all come in in this past quarter,” he said, and nearly all of them -- at least 40 out of 45 solar projects that have been processed -- are from within the Alliant territory.
Installer Michele Wei concurs that there’s been a mad dash of late.
Her business with Alliant picked up a little steam in 2012, but this year, she said, “It was like, ‘Oh boy -- it’s ending!’”
The Decorah Community School District, interested in putting panels atop several schools, has scurried to get its application in before the program expires. Superintendent Michael Haluska said the district will start small, with about 24 kilowatts atop three or four schools.
It would be just enough to “max out the Alliant rebate,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the opportunity for that rebate.”
And while there’s nothing like a deadline to provide an incentive for action, several people familiar with solar matters in Iowa said that Alliant Energy could -- and should -- have made a greater effort to publicize the subsidy for on-site renewables, which it will be terminating as of Dec. 31. The utility claimed that not many people were taking advantage of it.
Haman suggested that might have been because Alliant’s effort to publicize it “wasn’t a very aggressive marketing campaign.”
Wei went a bit further, characterizing the solar rebate as a “best-kept secret. If you don’t go on [Alliant's] website, you don’t know about it.” Jennifer Easler, an attorney with the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate, said that an outside committee convened to review Alliant’s efficiency programs recommended “a stronger outreach effort.”
Justin Foss, a spokesperson for Alliant Energy, said that the company routinely informs customers of efficiency benefits, like the on-site solar rebate, through articles in a company newsletter that goes out with monthly bills.
The network of solar dealers working in the state is “the best collection point” for getting such information out, he said.
But when Alliant has changed procedures and moved up deadlines, Wei said, the utility has failed to keep installers up to date. “There’s a lack of knowledge that the rebate is out there,” said Dwight, who is president of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association. “There’s not very strong advocacy of solar from the utilities. They don’t do a good job of educating customers.”
Meanwhile, business remains brisk for installers like Wei.
“We [installed] seven systems in the last month,” she said. “That’s definitely much more than we did last year. Since April or May, we’ve been installing nonstop.”