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FKEC launches Simple Solar

The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative's chief executive officer, Scott Newberry, at the utility's Marathon solar array. The cooperative's launched a program that it hopes will help raise money to explore other renewable energy options.
The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative's chief executive officer, Scott Newberry, at the utility's Marathon solar array. The cooperative's launched a program that it hopes will help raise money to explore other renewable energy options.

The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative is giving its customers a chance to go solar without the hassle of buying, installing or maintaining their own photovoltaic systems.

The cooperative already has 552 of the PV panels operating in Marathon, and another 120 on Crawl Key. And now the cooperative is offering its members a chance to lease one of those existing panels for $999 each.

A traditional residential photovoltaic installation runs $10,000 or more, and the cooperative is hoping some of its eco-minded members will be attracted to the more affordable adopt-a-panel program, officially dubbed Simple Solar.

The money the cooperative raises through the lease program will be used to explore other energy sources — more solar, perhaps, or wind or water turbines.

Chief Executive Officer Scott Newberry’s hook is that over the course of the next 25 years, customers will get a monthly credit — about $3 per panel now — for the full retail value of the electricity their panel generates. And with good odds that electricity costs will increase at least the 3 percent a year that Newberry estimates, customers could see a $1,280 return in that time.

“This program was designed for environmentally-conscious individuals who want an easy, affordable alternative to installing their own renewable energy source,” Newberry says. “By leasing our panels, you instantly add solar energy to your home without any hassles.”

The cooperative serves residents and businesses from Marathon to Key Largo. Members who lease a panel will receive its serial number and location, and that panel’s production will be credited to their account for 25 years.

What members won’t get is a panel on their roof, Newberry’s quick to point out, because it’s not that kind of lease. The cooperative’s already spent a pretty penny installing its panels in two spots in the Middle Keys, and they’re not moving.

The Simple Solar program was unveiled in February, and the cooperative’s touting it in advertising and on its website.

“FKEC is proud to be exploring green energy solutions, and we really see our cooperative solar farm as a first step in the right direction,” Newberry says.

Newberry is leasing a panel, as are two board members, and two customers have also signed up.

If a leasing member moves out of the cooperative’s service area, they can transfer the lease and its future credits to someone else, or FKEC can buy the lease back at its depreciated value.

Newberry says he knows right where his panel is. “I see it all the time,” he says with a laugh. “I picked my own, right near the road.”

That ability to see and touch the panel is what Newberry likes most about the program.

He wishes he could take credit for the idea, but the cooperative borrowed the idea from a Colorado utility, which used a lease program to build its solar farm, one panel at a time.

The cooperative installed the first set of photovoltaic panels in Marathon in 2008 at a cost of about $750,000. The panels sit on a quarter of an acre next to the cooperative’s substation. Each southern-facing solar panel is tilted about 10 degrees. They’re designed to generate 175 watts, with inverters that convert the resulting DC energy into AC power.

The Crawl Key panels went in last spring at a cost of about $180,000. Those panels aren’t part of the lease program yet, because they’re not as accessible.

The panels are expected to last 40 years or longer, but Newberry says they’re guaranteed for 20 years. It’s unlikely they’ll ever operate at 100 percent efficiency; the cooperative hopes to get 80 KwH out of the Marathon array’s potential 96 KwH. All of the panels are tied directly into the utility’s distribution system and supply about 1 percent of its power needs.

The cooperative’s arrays have performed well so far, Newberry says, with only minor maintenance — one replaced inverter — and an occasional spray down to keep dust at bay.

The cooperative says its average residential customer uses about 1,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month, so a member would need to lease 25 panels — the same number used in a typical residential rooftop installation — to equal their total monthly bill.

Not everyone has the money — or the right roof — to do their own project, he points out.

“With this, you can start in a small way,” Newberry says. “You’re helping fund the next generation.”

Since the cooperative’s a nonprofit, it’s not eligible for the various tax credit programs designed to promote renewable energy in recent years. It funded the PV installations using the Clean Renewable Energy Bond program that’s managed by the Internal Revenue Service.

The cooperative isn’t required to meet Florida’s goal of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, but Newberry says the utility has a responsibility to explore alternatives.

Newberry hopes the money raised by the Simple Solar program will help it do more of that exploration.

“We are also interested in wind power and the possibilities of tidal energy development. This solar panel lease program will help us fund the next generation of ‘green’ power as we work towards adding more and more renewable energy to our local power supply.”

Anyone can see how the Marathon array is doing by clicking the “live solar array data” link on the right side of the cooperative’s website.

For more information about Simple Solar, call 852-2431 or visit FKEC.com.

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