The Walton co-op: A new model solar community

By John David Baldwin on July 23, 2015

The Walton EMC electric co-op began almost eight decades ago, when seven community leaders donated $1 each towards the organizational expenses of a co-op to provide electricity to residents of rural northeast Georgia. They did so because at the time, no investor-owned utility considered it profitable to provide electricity to the sparsely populated area. Each person who receives service from this non-profit electric utility is both a member and an owner.

The co-op continues its tradition of developing innovative, community-based energy production. It recently developed a 1.3 MW solar project that will provide electricity to members.

Walton EMC members made the decision to develop the solar project. Members elect Walton EMC’s board. The board in turn hires all professional staff, including the CEO. CEO Ronnie Lee led the effort to solarize the co-op.

The project, built aside the co-op’s headquarters in Monroe, is comprised of 4,284 Canadian Solar modules, rated at 310 Watts each. Walton EMC selected Radiance Solar, LLC, to construct the project at a cost of roughly $2 million. The project is divided into 750 “blocks”. Each block of the six-acre array is expected to produce between 180 and 260 kWh of power per month. Members can buy the electricity produced from the blocks for $25 per month. CEO Lee chose the price because he thought it was “a good, affordable price point that wouldn’t put a financial burden on members.” A buyer can purchase up to two blocks. More blocks can be purchased with the approval of the co-op. This restriction was added to prevent members from having more energy than they use each month and to open up the program to as many participants as possible to meet demand.

Participants pay between 9.5 cents and 14 cents per kWh for electricity from the solar system. This is roughly the same price as local electricity prices from other sources, roughly 11 cents per kWh.

Developing the solar system was a multi-step process. Co-op staff completed the financial analysis of the project, determined how to meter bill for the solar array on customers’ accounts, and coordinated marketing efforts for the array. These efforts included promoting it on the website, in local media and at the annual co-op meeting.

Walton EMC’s wholly-owned gas subsidiary, Walton Energy, used the 30% federal tax credit to develop the project. Walton was also able to keep the financing of the project in-house, rather than seeking a loan to fund the initial cost of the project. Greg Brooks, the organization’s Community and Public Relations Director, noted that Walton EMC likely has more resources than the average co-op, due to its size. Despite its rural beginnings, Atlanta’s suburban growth means the Walton EMC now serves more than 120,000 accounts.

Members are not locked into a long-term commitment to receive electricity from the solar system. There is no upfront cost for members to do so. They can leave at any time, though with the growing waiting list, Walton EMC warns that there is no guaranteed access back into the solar project should customer-owners change their minds. Under the co-op’s net metering rules, a homeowner is only compensated at approximately $0.03-0.04/kWh (a lower rate than the retail price of electricity) for rooftop solar. So by comparison, the utility-owned community solar project would appear to be a particularly good deal.

The members tell Brooks that they’re very proud to be a part of the co-op. “I’ve worked here for 25 years,” Brooks said, “and we’ve never had a project that generated as much enthusiasm.” A look at the co-op’s Facebook page confirms the excitement from the community. Brooks also thinks that the project has been good for Walton’s employees: “it has impacted every single department in the co-op.”

Brooks noted that he was happy to offer advice to other rural electric co-ops that may consider similar projects. The lesson to be taken away from Walton’s example, he believes, is that a low entry point for participation (in this case, $25 per month per block) is a major key to success.

The co-op seeks to expand its investment in solar. The first offering of blocks sold out in just five days. There is a 1,400-person long waiting list. Walton EMC has plans to build four additional 1.3 MW arrays.

Grant Klein assisted with research on this article.