US farm co-op Organic Valley has completed work on three community solar projects which mean it is now 100% powered by renewables.
The news makes it the largest food company in the world to source all its energy from renewables – in line with a pledge made by Organic Valley in 2017 as part of its efforts to build a sustainable food system for the USA.
The new solar projects are part of the 32 MWdc Butter Solar Portfolio, owned and operated by BluEarth Renewables US, which will provide 23,000 people across 10 Midwest communities, including six in Organic Valley’s portfolio, with reduced energy costs for more than 25 years.
The sites will feature grazing sheep and pollinator habitats under the panels.
Organic Valley has worked on the project with with OneEnergy Renewables and the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (Ummeg). In late 2018, BluEarth Renewables acquired Butter Solar and they began construction in January 2019.
In a blog post on its website, Organic Valley said there were challenges for its team to overcome in meeting the ambitious 100% target.
“How would they get it done in ‘flyover country’?” it asked. “How would they focus on this project in a rural America that so many said was crumbling? How could they reach such an audacious goal in so little time?”
Energy services and technology manager Stanley Minnick said: “I didn’t know exactly how it would all work out, but I knew if we just kept moving forward – and especially if we had the right partners – we could scale beyond our current wind, solar and geothermal and get to 100% renewable-powered.”
The solution came through building a community, says Organic Valley; it developed its partnerships with OneEnergy and Ummeg also and brought on board organisations such as City of Madison, Fresh Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund.
“Suddenly,” says Organic Valley, “the project went beyond Organic Valley’s offices, warehouse and plants. It meant decades of cheaper energy from renewable sources for tens of thousands of rural Americans.”
With solar tariffs due to take effect and the government preparing to eliminiate tax credits, the team had to hurry to get the project through on time, working out power purchase agreements and renewable energy credits.
But with financial hardship and severe flooding in the region focusing minds on the benefits of cheap, clean energy, Organic Valley says the project picked up more local support.
“People from different backgrounds stepped up. They started projects of their own, supported by a group of businesses intent on doing good in the world. And it’s working.
“When you drive through the small town of Viroqua (pop. 4,400), just 15 miles from the solar installation site, you’ll drive past a National Co-op Grocers’ food co-operative with solar panels on its roof, a restaurant that sources almost all of its food from local farms, and a farmers market that blows most bigger cities’ markets out of the water.”
It adds: “Rural America has a bright future, and it’s powered by dreamers and doers who work together toward big, crazy goals.”