The future starts here: Iowa's first commercial solar-plus-storage project

By: Amy Van Beek, Co-Founder, Ideal Energy

In December 2016, Stuff Etc. in Coralville, Iowa made history by becoming Iowa’s first commercial business to benefit from solar-plus-storage combination technology. With a longstanding commitment to community and sustainability, the company is a beacon for progress in the Midwest.

Technology spurs growth

Community-oriented values and innovative solutions helped entrepreneur Mary Sundblad grow Stuff Etc from a small 750 sq ft shop into the largest consignment service operation in the nation.

Mary attributes her success to strategic technological investments like a state-of-the-art inventory tracking system, which enabled the consignment operation to explode into seven retail locations across Iowa. “We are held accountable to any item you bring us,” says Mary, “and can track tens of thousands of items as they move through our system. This just wasn’t possible when we were doing everything on index cards.”

Mary’s latest technological innovation involved investing in the future by installing solar at two retail locations, and trailblazing with Iowa’s first solar-plus-storage combination system. Stuff Etc’s low-risk investments in solar will generate around $75,000 per year in savings with a return on investment in just a few years.

The environmentally friendly technology also reflects the Stuff Etc’s ethos of community and sustainability while bolstering its bottom line. “Sustainability is what we’re all about,” Mary said. “Renew, reuse, recycle—that’s what we do.”

Basic: Net metering

Stuff Etc’s first investment into solar was at their Cedar Rapids retail location, where, as a customer of Alliant Energy, the installation fell under the standard approach to solar, net metering.

Net metering is a billing mechanism that allows customers with solar to overproduce power during the day or summer season, send excess power production back to the grid, and then draw on credit at night or in the winter, when solar output is lower.

Net metering makes calculating electrical cost reductions for solar simple and straightforward, which is why there’s been a big uptake in solar across Iowa.

Not so basic: Complex utility rate structures,
demand charges

However, many medium and large commercial utility customers in Iowa are subject to complex rate structures that can vary widely across neighboring utility territories. Until now, solar has been out of reach for these large electrical users.

Stuff Etc’s flagship Coralville retail location and corporate headquarters were subject to net metering constraints as a customer of Linn County REC. As a workaround, Ideal Energy engineered a system based on ‘peak shaving,’ combing solar panels and a battery energy storage system (BESS). This system prevents large spikes in power demand during peak times, which can trigger utilities to increase a customer’s electrical costs for the entire year.

“Our system places a specific threshold on the building’s demand, and anytime there’s power drawn above that, it will drain the batteries instead of pulling from the grid,” said Deniz Comez, Ideal Energy’s Director of Design.

High demand charges?

Work with an Ideal Energy expert to discover how battery energy storage systems can help.

Batteries that learn on the job

Using learning algorithms, the new generation of battery energy storage systems can analyze utility rate structures, predict how much energy will be needed the next day, and optimize recharging times from solar. BESS has a wide range of applications including peak shaving, load shifting, emergency backup, and other grid services. BESS easily integrates with solar installations, are scalable for projects of any size, and require little to no ongoing maintenance.

Reshaping our energy future

Systems like Stuff Etc’s have been implemented in California, Hawaii, and other states with high demand charges, but it’s the first of its kind in Iowa.

Troy Van Beek, Founder, and CEO of Ideal Energy explained, “This cutting-edge technology gives us the ability to store energy when it is the most affordable and makes it available at a time of day that is most expensive. Solar, when combined with battery storage gives us an amazing opportunity to fundamentally change how we work with energy to power our homes and businesses. We’re excited to be pioneering this technology in the Midwest.”

Get specific answers about how battery energy storage systems can impact your utility bills.

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