How Co-ops Are Bringing Solar Power to Rural America
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
In 2014, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association studied what some of its members saw as a touchy subject: local electricity powered by the sun.
NRECA, based in Arlington, Va., is the trade association for 900 local rural electric co-ops that came to life in 1942, when its members were dependent on coal. Many derived 70 percent or more of their power from coal, while just 1 percent of co-ops had gone beyond experimenting with solar as late as 2013, according to a survey at the time.
Only 20 percent of its 42 million members seemed interested in having more solar power.
But things began to change quickly.
By 2015, as Donald Trump was launching his political ambitions with a promise to revive the U.S. coal industry, multiple co-ops were building larger solar arrays and finding innovative ways to get communities to plug into them. This year, the solar footprint of U.S. co-ops will have grown 10 times as large in four years, a journey NRECA describes in a recent report titled: “The Solar Revolution in Rural America.”
It began as a tough slog. Polls showed that co-op members viewed solar as exotic, difficult to manage and, above all, too expensive on a communitywide scale. As one member of a co-op focus group insisted: “Signing up can’t result in a net loss to my wallet.”
The coal dependency started during the Great Depression and was reinforced in the 1980s when the co-ops built a system using co-op wholesalers. These are centrally located coal-fired power plants with long-distance transmission lines that spread electricity over 56 percent of the nation’s land mass. The system is financed, in part, by very long-term power contracts that limit local co-op power production to 5 percent or less.