Customers of IAMU member Traer Municipal Utilities (TMU) are reaping the benefits of a double shot of green energy programs. After launching a municipal wind energy program in late 2011, TMU has now rolled out a municipal solar energy program. The two efforts together have created happy utility officials and happy utility customers. Is Traer the only municipality in Iowa to feature both wind and solar? The answer to that isn't entirely clear, but there is no doubt the tandem effort has truly put the small town on the map as an energy efficiency dynamo.
On the south side of town, next to U.S. Highway 63, an array of solar panels has sprung up on the landscape. They are the home of about 40kW of power generation currently subscribed to by TMU customers, with the site capable of turning out about 250kW. Construction of panels started October 1. Utility customers have the option of becoming owners of as many panels as they want, for an Initial cost of $530 each. To date, about 35 customers have become solar pioneers in Traer, according to Pat Stief, General Manager of TMU. "They have full ownership of the panel for 20 years. TMU takes care of the maintenance and some other costs, and after 20 years, the ownership would switch back to TMU," said Stief. During that 20-year period the customer receives credits on their energy bills each month, based on the amount of energy produced by the panel. Stief said that averages out to 32 kW of energy per month, and about 390 kW per year. "Customers should realize a savings of about $1,000 over the 20 years for their $535 investment," he said.
You could say the solar option has been a hit with folks in Traer. "Some customers bought one panel, some two or three. One bought 10, another one 15, and one customer bought 20 of them!" said Stief, pictured at left. He reported the utility did simple marketing and research work from June September of 2013 to gauge interest, through bill inserts and items in the local newspaper. It didn't take long for the utility to realize there indeed was a desire. "With the first bill insert we did, we asked if people were interested in the project. We got 45 replies basically saying, 'Yes. Go for it,'" said Stief. On August 1 the utility held an open house and had a panel and inverter on display. "People started signing up right then in August, and we placed an order for panels in September," reported Stief. By October, the panels were being installed. Stief still marvels at how quickly and smoothly everything went. TMU ordered the panels from Geode Energy, a small firm run by Roger Gard in Danville, IA, who had previously worked with Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Cooperative in Kalona, nationally known for its green energy program.
Did the fact that TMU had been generating electricity with a wind turbine for nearly two years help in the customer relations area? "I think it did," said Stief. "I know it sure got my board thinking about the possibilities of a project like solar," he said, noting there was a component of direct buy-in for their customers, unlike the $3 million wind turbine project.
And, speaking of the wind turbine, Stief summed up the wind energy side of his utility with one word: "Remarkable." He said the wind project is currently meeting about 40% of his city's energy needs, with the high point coming in November, when 52.5% of the needs were met by the wind generation. And the wind turbine and solar panels together are proving to be a great marriage. "The one problem with the turbine is, it doesn't always produce when demand is high therefore, solar!" Stief mused that the solar energy helps level things out when combined with the wind energy.
With existing solar panels still waiting to be spoken for and space for about 200 additional kW worth of panels available, Stief expects even more excitement over green energy to be generated in Traer right along with the electricity from his powerfully efficient combo platter.