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COMMENTARY ARCHVES
   

MAY COMMENTARY
by Share Brandt

Solar Energy Changing
the Power Business

The idea of getting your power from the sun is appealing on many different levels. It’s clean energy - it seems simple (no moving parts!), and, important to many, it promises freedom -you’re generating your own electricity, and seemingly not as dependent on the grid.

But the truth is, residential solar power isn’t as simple as it seems, and unless you’re willing to invest in an expensive battery system and backup generation, the average household can’t sever its cord from the nation’s grid.

After all, the sun only shines part of the day, and yet modern life demands electricity 24/7. For this reason alone, most homes with roof-top solar arrays need to remain connected to their local power lines. But as solar and, to a lesser degree, other renewable forms of energy grow in popularity, they are changing the relationship between the grid and many residential electrical users.

Once, power flowed just one way: down your electric co-op’s lines and into homes. But today, for a home or small business with solar panels, it can flow in different directions at different times of day. When the sun is shining, a residence with solar panels can provide power for itself and direct any excess power onto the grid. Residential solar is a piece of what the utility industry calls “distributed generation,” that is, smaller, embedded sources of power generation separate from central power plants.

The rules governing distributed generation and, in particular, payments for excess power that will flow onto the grid vary from state to state and utility-to-utility. Consumers who are interested in residential solar installation should always contact their local electric cooperative first.

No matter how it's handled, this new direction for power flow is changing a fundamental part of the power business. Apart from states’ specific legal regulations, cooperatives across the country are working with their members to find ways to accommodate the new sources of power generation, including residential solar, while preserving the safety and reliability of the system and ensuring fair rates for all members.

So, how are Wisconsin's electric cooperatives meeting this new challenge? Many are announcing community solar projects or study committees to evaluate projects for their members. Two co-ops have already sold out subscriptions for their community solar farms

Electric co-ops are not-for-profit utilities owned by and governed by their members. If enough members want their co-op to get involved with projects like distributed generation the co-op will try to find a way to make it work. It’s something they’re very good at.

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