Tariffs imposed in 2018 have created uncertainty and job losses in the solar industry. While challenging, the silver lining is that the looming threat of more tariffs has inspired companies, states, and businesses to innovate in order to continue to shift the U.S. energy system toward more renewable sources.
One example of a unique approach to shift the U.S. closer to a clean energy future are 10 solar projects that dot the Wisconsin and Minnesota countryside, called the Butter Solar portfolio.
Organic Valley, the largest cooperative of organic farmers in the U.S., is the company that propelled the Butter Solar portfolio into existence. The venture was made possible with the help of the many partners who came together under the Organic Valley Community Solar Partnership to achieve the dairy and egg cooperative’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy.
The partnership includes Organic Valley; Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (UMMEG), a group of 16 municipality utilities; OneEnergy Renewables, a North American developer of community and utility-scale solar energy projects; and BluEarth Renewables, an independent power producer.
Because Organic Valley is a cooperative, it could not work directly with a local solar project and instead needed to go through local utilities. This is why Organic Valley approached the Cashton utility, which brought it back to its fellow UMMEG members. From there, interest grew among UMMEG. As a result, 13 out of the group’s 16 members agreed to join the partnership due to cost savings and capacity value opportunity, said Stanley Minneck, Organic Valley’s energy services and technology manager.
Richard Heinemann, an attorney for the UMMEG, confirmed that its decision to join the partnership lies in the economics: "It's a signal that green energy is, from a cost standpoint, competitive [with fossil fuel sources].”
To set up the partnership, OneEnergy Renewables worked with BluEarth Renewables, which built and now operates the installations that became the Butter Solar Portfolio. UMMEG buys the generated electricity for a fixed rate and then sells the electricity to Organic Valley. Then, Organic Valley purchases renewable energy certificates (RECs)—documents that represent property rights to renewable electricity—to achieve its goal of being 100 percent powered by renewables, Tim Sylvia of PV Magazine reports.
How Organic Valley helped bring renewable power and jobs to the Midwest
The partnership also demonstrates that a large company, including one structured as a cooperative, can achieve environmental goals while creating renewable electricity for its neighbors. The partnership entails an eight-acre solar installation on Organic Valley’s property in Cashton, Wisconsin, and other installations across the Midwest, which provide 23,000 individuals with reduced energy costs and cleaner energy options.
During an interview with TriplePundit, Minneck pointed out that it was important from the beginning that Organic Valley purchase RECs that produced energy for more than just the cooperative’s needs.
Six communities in the Midwest that will benefit directly from the community solar partnership include Arcadia, Cashton, La Farge, Merrillan and Viola in Wisconsin, as well as St. Charles in Minnesota, Waste 360 reports. For example,all subscribers of the Cashton Municipality will see savings on their energy bills for the next 25 years, Minneck told 3p.
“These projects, and others like them, create regular and meaningful work for dozens and dozens of solar professionals, like the hard-working folks from Arch Electric based out of Plymouth, Wisconsin,” Minneck wrote in a recent Organic Valley blog post. “Providing opportunity for others to join the renewable energy industry is an essential part of why partnerships like the Organic Valley Community Solar Project matter.”
Collaboration key for Organic Valley to finance this venture
Organic Valley also recruited other brands to sign on and purchase RECs to finance the partnership and increase the amount of renewable power available in the Midwest. Dr. Bronner’s, the Wisconsin capital city of Madison and Clif Bar purchased RECs before the project finished, bringing the total capacity of the project to 32 megawatts, Minneck said.
“Without all of the partners participating, the economics would not have worked out,” Minneck concluded.
Image credit: Organic Valley