Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and others have had their share of glory with community solar projects. The rural town of Fremont in Nebraska is now first in line, as far as case studies on community solar go. Founded in 1856, Fremont, Nebraska is a town of roughly 27,000 residents, about 35 miles northwest of Omaha. The local economy is rooted in agriculture and, today, agribusiness support services. A Hormel meat packing plant is the largest employer in town, and Costco recently broke ground for a poultry processing plant.
The town has a long history of environmental stewardship and latent demand for renewable energy. When Brian Newton arrived in Fremont as the new Utility General Manager in October 2015 with 12,000 accounts, he set about discussing the possibility of a community solar farm for his customers. Although the original plan was for a relatively small, 500-kilowatt (kW) system, Fremont residents had lined up to register for the program in such numbers that the project was first expanded to 1 megawatt (MW) capacity. With ever more customers wanting to buy in, the project was further expanded to 1.55 MW — or 4,928 panels — in the project’s 12.55-acre site.
Strategies for Success
By insuring both customer concerns and needs were addressed, Fremont’s utility was able to design a program with two options for customers
- Who wished to purchase the individual solar panels: Purchase one or more 315-watt panels, that can cover up to 80 percent of a customer’s total consumption, and pay a 3-cent per kWh maintenance fee for 20 years. The customer owns the panel, but Fremont will handle the maintenance and operation. Each panel costs $180, and customers are able to receive the 30% investment tax credit.
- Who were just interested in purchasing the power the panels generated: Purchase a block of output. The blocks are 150 kWh and cost 6 cents per kWh, one cent higher than current rates, but the price is fixed for 20 years.
Additionally, Fremont reduced the risk for its customers. For those who purchase a panel, but want to leave the program before the 20 years are completed, Fremont will buy back the panel according to an amortization scale. For those purchasing a block, they can leave the program with 30-days notice. No exit fees for either type of customer. To ensure that community stayed central to the project, Newton picked GenPro, the only large-scale solar developer in Nebraska, for the engineering and construction of the project. Unable to work a local financing deal due to federal and state banking restrictions, Fremont self-financed the project from the utility’s own reserves. This also helped the utility to get the training and education needed to maintain the project for its full 20-year life cycle. Hands-on customer service, multiple community interaction sessions and a seamless registration process all helped Fremont reach its goals.
The case study lays out the principles and tactics Newton adopted to successfully launch, expand (twice!) and subscribe the 1.55 MW community solar farm. Based on in-depth interviews with citizens of Fremont, this case study helps understand the importance of knowing customer concerns and needs in constructing a community solar program. It also includes a short discussion about the value of community solar to Fremont’s commercial and industrial customers. Newton is now planning Fremont’s second community solar installation — 5 MW this time — and he already has a waiting list of 50.
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Learn more about Fremont’s Community Solar Farm by watching this YouTube video.