Organic Valley, the largest American organic farmer cooperative in the US, recently announced it is now operating on 100% renewable electricity. The announcement included a reference to another important energy-related development: the completion of three community solar projects totaling 12.67 MW. The cooperative started up in 1988 and has its headquarters in La Farge, Wisconsin. Organic Valley’s Energy Services & Technology Manager, Stanley Minnick, answered some questions for CleanTechnica.
Why was it important for Organic Valley to run on 100% renewable electricity?
Renewable energy is an investment in our future, and a recognition of our cooperative’s past. It’s built into who we are. Being an organic cooperative founded by and owned by farmers, we know that harnessing of the sun is yet one more way to help keep farmers farming, and we hope to serve as an example for other larger and smaller companies and organizations who are serious about getting to 100% renewable electricity.
What does the company operate with the electricity sourced from renewables?
All of our cooperatively-owned buildings are powered with renewables. This includes operations that we have partial ownership of, as well as those we wholly own. We even power our entire Cashton campus, and that means our distribution center, where we make our ghee, and our Cashton office building.
Does Organic Valley also use electricity from wind power?
Our partnership with rural communities started with our Cashton Greens Wind Farm. The key difference here is that CROPP, along with our joint-owners Gundersen Lutheran, are the owner-operators of the project. Work started in 2008, and the project was completed in 2012. It is comprised of two 2.5 MW clipper turbines.
Is energy storage part of the system?
No energy storage is included with these systems; however, we are investigating some peak shaving batteries on our facilities at this time. We’ve also been working hard to understand better and serve many of our Amish farms. We want to help scale the adoption of right-sized non-grid connected solar on our farms and will be releasing ~40pg best practice guide for our farmers and those who serve them.
Does the company use any all-electric or hybrid vehicles?
We have several Ford C-max Energi that are used by employees. We also have free level 2 chargers at both of our major facilities, and have seen evidence that if you build it, they will come. The number of employees with EV’s seems to grow exponentially, so much so that we’re doubling the number of chargers at our Cashton campus.
What are the economic benefits of the community solar projects?
Being that the partners are municipal utilities, the economic benefits of the projects themselves are distributed among all ratepayers in those communities. Organic Valley purchases power from two of the UMMEG communities, and we believe, as have the community utility boards and others who’ve evaluated the projects, that there will be long term savings to retail customers in these communities. There are benefits from both the capacity value as well as the stable/low wholesale volumetric rates that will provide benefits for the life of the systems
Are the installations all ground-mounted solar?
These OVCSP projects are all at the community/small utility-scale ground-mounted systems (the largest is 5MWdc & ~36 acres). We have solar behind the meter solar and solar hot water on 3 of our facilities, and our first PV system was installed over 12 years ago in La Farge, WI.
How will pollinator habitats be created under the solar panels?
We’ve worked with folks at Fresh Energy, the Bee & Butterfly fund, as well as our partners OneEnergy & BluEarth renewables to make sure that the projects stack benefits and support our rural agricultural system. The seed mixes planted beneath the solar panels are tailored to each specific site and incorporate native species and those that benefit both honeybees and native pollinators as well.
Will the sheep on the land with the solar panels help with weed control?
Sheep will control the vegetation of the project in Cashton, WI for sure. Our Amish neighbor has a flock of sheep that he’s grazed on our certified organic pasture for years as part of a good neighbor handshake agreement. When we began talking about this site for solar, the farmer was interested from day one about grazing his sheep among the array. The sheep are put on for a few days & will likely be rotated between various sections of the installation before being relocated to adjacent pasture. In the case of the Cashton site, we worked with what was there, like the cool-season pasture grasses. And of course, just like the farms in our cooperative, we will manage the solar array without use of toxic herbicides and pesticides.
Image Credits: Organic Valley