A Texas-based distribution cooperative is tripling up to meet demand for renewable energy and high-speed internet in its service territory by selling site-installed solar panels, energy storage technology and broadband services connected to its fiber network.
“We listened to our members who said they wanted more renewable energy options, specifically solar energy,” said Bill Hetherington, CEO of Bandera Electric Cooperative, adding that members also want fast, reliable internet service.
“As a co-op, we are uniquely positioned to partner with members who want to invest in solar energy. We can now provide design expertise, installation and ongoing monitoring built on the long-term commitment of the cooperative.”
Since launching BEC Solar in 2016, the co-op found that over 40 percent of members who buy solar arrays also add battery storage to their systems.
The co-op-provided storage systems are scalable, so up to 10 can be installed on a single system, said Todd Horsman, manager of technologies for BEC Solar. “That makes them a good fit for customizing solar installations to meet the needs of individual members’ homes or commercial account needs.”
During the design phase, the co-op reviews several years of a member’s electricity use and makes system-sizing recommendations, said Horsman. “That sets us apart from a lot of solar dealers, who will look at the available space and try to sell as many panels as possible. We don’t want members buying more of a system than they can reasonably use.”
The co-op is also providing maintenance and upkeep on the solar systems it installs. In the three years since its first systems went in, the co-op has made several reliability improvements.
“We now deploy solar panels equipped with individual inverters, reducing disruptions that can occur as a result of lightning strikes or severe hail or storm damage,” said Horsman. “With micro-inverters, you can lose one panel, and the rest of the array continues to operate.”
Both the co-op’s broadband and solar arms were launched as a direct result of responses to customer satisfaction surveys.
“We’re offering these products and services to bring more value to our members and the communities we serve,” Hetherington said.
BEC Solar has installed more than 150 solar energy systems, including its first commercial system, saving the co-op’s members more than $200,000 a year in power costs. BEC Fiber has connected more than 3,200 members to high-speed internet and helped fuel growth in BEC’s overall member base, said Hetherington.
“Since 2017, we have seen more than 10 percent member growth annually,” Hetherington said. “The deployment of fiber has not only provided added revenue, it has also improved the electric system’s reliability.”
The co-op has also added several new skillsets to its workforce, leading to significant employment growth. Since their respective launches, BEC Solar has added six team members, and BEC Fiber has added 12 team members.
Overall, BEC has grown across the organization from 83 employees in January 2016 to 116 employees now, said Hetherington, adding that the co-op also operates a community solar farm that’s 93 percent subscribed. “Our primary focus remains providing reliable electric service, and offering solar solutions enables us to keep rates low for all members.”