Powered with a Purpose – Trico Electric Embraces Solar Access for Members

Episode ID S1E10
September 22, 2021

As more consumers produce and store electricity at home, the traditional relationship between electric cooperatives and their members is shifting. Trico Electric embraced the changing marketplace and is helping members on the solar adoption journey. In this episode, CoBank’s Teri Viswanath and Tamra Reynolds talk with Trico Electric’s Eric Hawkins and Laree St. Onge to learn how a flexible outlook helped the co-op remain true to its member mission as it pivoted business operations.  

Transcript

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Teri Viswanath: Welcome to Power Plays CoBank Knowledge Exchange podcast series, an audio program where we connect you with top energy and environmental innovators and policymakers who share their insights, experience, and market observations. Hello. I'm Terry Viswanath, the lead economist for power, energy, and water at CoBank. I'm joined today by co-host and CoBank Managing Director, Tamra Reynolds. Hey, Tamra.

Tamra Reynolds: Hi, Teri. I'm excited to share the Trico electric discussion with our Power Plays audience. I know that you were originally interested in speaking with Trico because of their extensive experience with integrating rooftop solar. While our conversation with Eric and Laree certainly discuss rooftop solar integration, the larger message was really about the membership engagement and maybe education.

Teri: That's right. I was really impressed with some of the research that's coming out that talks about the rising delivery costs and the fact that we might be approaching economic parity between installing rooftop solar and utility-scale solar. Certainly, Trico would be the group to interview on this topic. I think while some of our discussion focused on the economics certainly and we talked a little bit about community solar versus rooftop solar, the discussion we ultimately land on happen to be I think more fundamental. Really going to the heart of what it means to be a cooperative of members. Members who might elect to generate their own power.

Tamra: When we step back and consider the array of choices that members might adopt from rooftop solar and smart appliances to heat pumps and electric cars, these choices may fundamentally alter the traditional relationship that our co-ops have with their members, but one thing remains the same: the mission to provide reliable electricity to members. Here's Trico’s unique story about their own path and how they responded to industry change.

Teri: We're joined today on Power Plays with Trico Electric's Eric Hawkins, Chief Legal and Administrative Officer, and Laree St. Onge, the Manager of Public Affairs and Sustainable Energy Programs. Welcome to both of you.

Eric Hawkins: Thank you for having us.

Laree St. Onge: Thank you.

Teri: We want to understand the entire solar adoption journey for Trico, rooftop community solar, and utility-scale. Eric, can you shed some light and give us an overview of your offering?

Eric: Our rooftop program goes back long ways and there was a substantial impetus for our members to put solar rooftop on their houses because there was net metering in Arizona and that gave them a significant financial incentive to do so. There was concern several years ago among some that when net metering was changed and it went to a standard and, in our case, decreasing export rate, that that would potentially cause problems for solar, slow down solar.

We found that that just didn't happen. Looking back at community and utility solar, we have in front of our office here at Trico a community sun farm that has been in place since I believe 2012 is the date. We also have an existing project called Avion in Marana, which is outside of Tucson here in Arizona that's a 10-megawatt utility-scale project as well as we're developing currently a project north of our office up in the Saddlebrook area that's going to be called Chiria, which is an additional utility-scale project.

From the very start, we've tried to be supportive of rooftop solar. It was certainly out here in the desert and with lots of sun. It was popular for that reason and for the financial incentive. We also see that utility-scale projects have a significant benefit that can really benefit our members. We've tried to start to steer folks in that direction. Well, obviously also, Laree can talk about it but providing strong support for our rooftop utility program.

Teri: When we talked in our prep call with you guys, rooftop solar adopted or started adopting at a slower pace than what it is at today, around the 2007 to 2010 timeframe. Then suddenly, you guys started to see a swift up-kick in member adoption from 2015 onward. Laree, you were on the front lines of this when we talked about this last time. How did Trico handle that growth and what changes had to be implemented to keep up with some of those member requests that you guys started to see come in?

Laree: In the beginning, it was easily managed with one person managing the day-to-day applications, emails, phone calls. We were tracking everything in an Excel spreadsheet. We had all paper applications. Then as the applications increased, we began tracking the installations and system information, and other types of software. We now have an online application system. With the proliferation of applications over the years, we just felt it was going to be much easier to manage that way.

It's fully online, can be accessed using Trico's website, and the solar installers are very well versed on how to use it, they submit their applications, they're able to see the status of those applications and where they are in the process. I think also, the other piece to all of it isn't just what we've had to do in our department. We've also had to increase the involvement of other departments within Trico, including the folks in our design and engineering department. Our operations folks are going out there doing all sorts of different things.

Our metering techs, those folks are out there doing, I think so far this year, we've had almost 400 solar inspections. They're all extremely busy but the calls have continued to increase now though. They've morphed from being status application calls and what's your process to, why is my bill so high? Then that also involves our Member Services Department. It's really, you just have to be flexible I think is what we've learned and really just go with the ebbs and flows and consistently assess where the program is and what the needs are.

Tamra: Anything else that that stands out as to maybe how Trico had to think differently about the way they approached members or approached the process for doing some of these rooftop approvals and installations?

Laree: I think over time, we've really noticed that there's a lack of information out there for our members about what to look for when installing solar. What is it? How does it work? What will your bill eventually look like? I think really, what we've tried to do over time is to really become that trusted energy partner when it comes to solar and really encouraging our members to reach out. We've also put quite a few resources on our website. We've hosted a virtual solar informational session for our members. We continuously encourage them through social media posts to give us a call.

We alert them through social media and other channels as well when we are receiving information that may not be accurate and to really encourage them to ask questions. We do have quite a few resources out there available on our website, places that they can contact. We encourage them to really do their research, get quotes from multiple installers. We're really just utilizing all those questions and concerns that we've had or that we've received over the years from all of our members and try to put them into informational packets I guess you could call them on our website that they can go out there and reference. Again, as with anything else, they can call us anytime.

Teri: I want to talk a little bit about the Commercial Industrial, the C&I space. This segment certainly was a first-mover when we think about solar adoption and for the benefit of cooperatives that are working in maybe different areas of the country that are at different stages of that journey and maybe just witnessing this phenomenon, I'd like to understand where that segment has moved and where you think it's headed. Microgrids for solar plus storage. Eric, what are your thoughts there?

Eric: There's a lot of interest out there and they want to get involved with renewables, they want to integrate renewables and potentially batteries into their systems, and they're trying to figure out the best way to do it. The approach we've taken is to try to embrace that and we've at least started to reach out to those folks, understand what it is that they're interested in doing, and try to find out a way that the cooperative can be part of that and be able to extend the benefits of those programs, not just to the individual, commercial, industrial or government user, but also to expand it to all of our members and be able to integrate that their investment in renewables into our resource mix. We do think that batteries will certainly play a large part of that in the future. Batteries provide us a lot of flexibility in terms of capacity, especially over hot summers here in Tucson. Having that additional capacity from batteries when the sun goes down and solar starts to decrease in what it's providing, being able to have that battery that you've charged all day off of the solar as an asset or resource is definitely valuable. We think that the folks out there in the commercial and industrial spaces see those benefits as well.

Tamra: There's a steep learning curve for consumers that are trying to grapple with learning the technology and understanding what it means to manage that. How do you guys help with guiding that learning process or what are some of the things that you guys lean into when you're trying to give your member-owners a better feel for taking that responsibility into their hands?

Laree: That's a good question. Tamra, I think really, with our members, we have a lot of folks who really want to be involved in that day-to-day analysis of what's their solar system doing, how can I make it work better for me. At Trico, we're now 100% automated with our metering. That's something where they can go out. We utilize Smart Hub, and they're able to go on to our website and track what their systems are doing and how they're working throughout the day. We have solar output meters on all of our systems. Those solar output meters also go through the Smart Hub system.

They're really able to play around with how they use the energy in their homes and how solar can help assist with that. We've really just tried to be flexible and understand what our members want and what kind of information is valuable to them and really just help to provide that. Whether it be through as I mentioned previously, some of our online virtual workshops that we host. We're always open to new workshops on different topics but we're really trying to encourage them to understand what they have sitting on their roofs or mounted in their backyards and utilize that to their advantage.

I think it's only going to become even more exciting with all these new technologies really trying to get them all to play together and how best to utilize those and charge their electric vehicles with their solar on their rooftops. We have some folks that are very interested in that and very willing to provide guidance on what they're looking forward to.

Eric: As Laree says, there's a continuum there of people who are very sophisticated and want every piece of technology they can possibly integrate into their house and want to have maximum control. There are also folks who just are interested in solar and would like to move in that direction but aren't exactly sure how. We really have to tailor our training to meet all of those people's needs and have that expertise in-house as well to be able to assist them.

Tamra: We didn't put this into the questions but I think it's an important component to add because it's becoming more relevant all the time. You've talked about other types of technology being put into the homes, things like your electric vehicles and whatnot. I'm curious if you know how many batteries you have on your system and what are some of the trends you're seeing around that?

Laree: The exact number I don't have offhand at the moment, but I can tell you that we are receiving more and more battery applications. We do track the number of batteries that come through. We utilize the same online application system for batteries that we utilize for solar installations. I think right now one of our solar installers has communicated to us that some of these issues regarding procurement and other issues, sourcing batteries has been a little difficult but even some of our installers, they're asking us, some of the applications will be a solar and battery system.

They're asking if we can somehow separate that for right now so that they can install the solar and just make this system battery ready for as soon as that battery comes on site. We're working with them on that as well so that they can still take advantage of the rooftop solar piece even if the batteries are a little delayed but it's coming.

Tamra: I understand you're one of the first community solar installations in the country and I think you've also adopted utility-scale additions that address renewable energy equity for all members but I think it's a really interesting discussion on access for all.

Eric: As I mentioned, there is certainly a lot of interest amongst our members in solar and in renewables. That doesn't always mean that they necessarily want to put the solar or renewable on their house, they may not like the look, they may not have the cost-wise, the ability to do that, but they'd love to be able to participate in the process. That's certainly one of the drivers behind the sun farm and behind community solar, and being able to engage members into that process of integrating renewables into our system.

Even bigger than that, we talk about our internal values and our internal mission being finding solutions that are cost-effective, but also environmentally sensitive and responsible and being able to share the benefits between all of our members. As a cooperative, that's obviously an important part of what we do. Well, we saw a lot of interest, we've always also heard a lot of concern from members about subsidies, especially when that metering was in place but even with the current export rates there is some element of subsidy that we still need to build at our system, and our distribution to be able to handle our folks who have renewables on their house and are able to cover their own load requirements.

Being able to install a utility-scale solar project, we're able to share some of those benefits. We're incorporating in an environmentally responsible way, renewables onto the system,

Tamra: Laree and Eric, what recommendations would Trico have for other co-ops that are just beginning to address member rooftop adoption?

Laree: I would say from the residential side, definitely just be flexible. Especially if where you are there's a lack of regulation made, it may be easier for you to do what you'd like to do as it relates to rooftop solar but I know for us, we're in a fully regulated utility. From that perspective, our co-op, we've had to be flexible and I think that's really the biggest message there. Things have been changing since the beginning and they change quickly. They don't feel like they're changing quickly at times, I have to admit, but at least in the regulatory world, but they are changing quickly.

I think it's just going to continue. The new technology is going to continue to change quickly. Everything out there and available, you just have to be ready and I know even from our perspective, we've had those ups and downs, those ebbs and flows and applications over the years primarily due to the changes in regulatory environment or just basically uncertainty as a whole. Because of that with those ebbs and flows, we've had to supplement our workforce but of course, we don't want to hire someone, and then if there is a situation where the applications were to dwindle, have to then let them go.

We've utilized some of our on-call resources and part-time folks to help us through those ebbs and flows and that's worked very well. Just keeping an eye on what's going on out there staying in touch with your members. They'll tell you a lot, once they start to trust you, they will tell you what's going on out there and what they're being told. I think we all can understand that what they're being told may not always be the most accurate information. Level setting those expectations. Just continuing to work with your members, understand what they want, and be flexible.

Eric: I guess I would just add to that. You really do just have to embrace the process. It's embracing the innovation, it's embracing the fact that your members are interested in renewables and helping them to move in that direction. One of the big pieces of it too, it's kudos to Laree and to her team over the years, but it's also finding employees that are willing to embrace the idea, who are willing to be interested in the idea and investment themselves in the idea of that change, of a changing environment and of helping members to move in that direction.

Tamra: That's really helpful, guys, Laree and Eric, I just wanted to thank you both for sharing the TRICO story and bringing everyone, hopefully a greater understanding of what solar has done for your co-op and how that helps your members and engage your members and provided value to your territory overall. Thank you.

Laree: Thank you.

Eric: Thank you everyone.

Teri: Tamra, I really enjoyed our discussion with Eric and Laree. Trico gave us this unique historical tour from 2005 when members first started to install their own rooftop, up until around 2013 when you started to see that program really accelerate in their service territory. Trico had to be well, really agile, they had to identify how they needed to grow with their members, they had to change their internal processes and their systems to be able to handle that flow. Also, they weren't actually providing the equipment here, oftentimes, they had to own problems that maybe came in from a vendor who promised and underdelivered, so they had to evolve their own membership education program to be able to adjust to that environment.

Tamra: Laree mentioned they began to host virtual information sessions for their members on solar options. Trico utilized different approaches for their outreach, including social media and encouraging members to reach out with questions. I think it is also important to point out as Eric mentioned, Trico 's response also included offering more options for members beyond just rooftop. In fact, Trico was one of the first co-ops in the country to offer community solar back in 2011.

Teri: Trico also has solar output meters on all their systems so they can communicate with the members on how they're actually using energy, and really how the solar helps assist in meeting their own requirements. The foundation that they've built with their members will further support their needs down the road such as electric vehicles, maybe greater home electrification and storage.

Tamra: We were both excited to have Trico tell their story, and we hope that you've enjoyed that discussion as well. Next month, we want to pick up where we left off with Trico. Hearing from more of our co-op communities, they talk about their own innovations across the country. Since October is National Co-Op month. What better way to celebrate the month than by highlighting outstanding achievements in the field.

Teri: We hope you're going to join us then. Thanks again for listening in.

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