The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) recent report says there has been some tremendous growth in solar energy, driven by electric cooperatives (co-ops). Co-ops are utilities owned by their customers and serve 56% of the land area in the U.S. By 2019, the NRECA predicts co-op solar capacity will surpass 1 gigawatt or enough to power more than 200,000 homes. Green Building Advisor contributor Arjun Krishnaswami explains more on the solar expansion.

Co-ops are scaling up the solar projects they develop and more frequently buying power from large solar plants. Historically, the solar energy in cooperative service regions has come from small projects and distributed generation. In 2014, co-ops provided about 113 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity, and the average size of a co-op installation was 25 kilowatts (kW). By 2017, the total capacity grew to over 850 MW, and, now, the average installation provides 1 MW — 40 times the size just four years ago. This change stems in large part from partnerships between distribution co-ops and their generation and transmission counterparts to develop or buy energy from larger solar power plants and serve more members.

Co-ops are not only investing in new large-scale solar, they also are expanding access through distributed, smaller projects. Community solar programs allow customers to buy a share of a solar project and then benefit from the electricity generated. These projects enable people to take advantage of solar energy even when they cannot install their own rooftop solar panels. They may not be able to afford the large up-front costs, don’t own their home and can’t alter the roof, or have rooftops that are shaded or inconveniently oriented. More and more rural communities are subscribing to community solar programs, thanks in large part to the more than 190 co-ops that have community solar projects or are currently planning them.

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