SMECO’s solar farm in Hughesville has been operating since November 2012 and has generated nearly 17,000 megawatt-hours over the past two years.

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), an educational nonprofit organization focused on helping utilities integrate solar electric power into their energy portfolios, recently named the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) as Electric Cooperative Utility of the Year. The award was announced during SEPA’s Awards Luncheon at Solar Power International in Las Vegas. Founded in 2005, SEPA’s annual awards recognize organizations and individuals advancing utility innovation, industry collaboration, and leadership in the solar energy sector.

“SMECO leveraged one of the advantages offered by solar—as well as being true to its co-op mission to  bring value to the community it serves—when it chose to build solar within the co-op service area rather than purchase renewable credits from a distant resource,” said Julia Hamm, president and CEO of SEPA. “The co-op also gained valuable hands-on experience with a new resource, inspiring a commitment to continue to expand its investment in solar.”

SMECO earned the 2014 award as a result of its leadership and commitment to meeting Maryland’s renewable energy targets with locally generated solar power. As a regulated, single distribution utility with 156,000 customers, SMECO decided against the possibly easier path of fulfilling part of its renewable goals by purchasing renewable energy credits. Instead it developed a 5.5-megawatt (MW) solar project on land previously used for tobacco farming, which it financed by creating a separate entity that was able to take advantage of the federal income tax credits then available in the form of a Treasury Department cash grant. Going this route required the co-op to win special permissions and waivers from the Maryland Public Service Commission. A second, 10-MW project financed through a private power purchase agreement is scheduled to go online in early 2015, ensuring SMECO can meet its state-mandated renewable goals through 2018.

After being notified of the award, SMECO President and CEO Austin J. Slater, Jr., said, “As an electric cooperative, we are obligated to maintain the highest standard of reliable service while keeping our costs as low as possible, and making efficient use of solar energy allows us to cost-effectively fulfill state-mandated renewable energy requirements.”

Slater added, “Solar panels are showing up everywhere. Since 2006, solar installations across the nation have increased by 1,600 percent. Industry experts estimate that one new solar installation went up every four minutes in 2013, and that rate is accelerating. This year we held three solar workshops to provide our customer-members with information on metering and renewable energy credits. Our customers are embracing this technology, and we are proud to receive recognition for our accomplishments from the Solar Electric Power Association.”

At the awards ceremony held in Las Vegas, SEPA also announced awards for Georgia Power as Investor-Owned Utility of the Year, the City of Palo Alto Utilities as Public Power Utility of the Year, and Warren McKenna, general manager of the Farmers Electric Cooperative, as Utility CEO of the Year. SEPA also added a new award category this year, naming Clean Power Research as its first Innovative Solar Partner of the Year.

SMECO is a customer-owned electric cooperative, and we are proud to be a J.D. Power 2014 Customer Champion. We are one of an elite group of 50 U.S. companies to be named to this list.

SMECO is a customer-owned electric cooperative providing electricity to over 156,000 services in Charles County, St. Mary’s County, southern Prince George’s County, and all but the northeast portion of Calvert County.  Co-ops are distinctly different from investor-owned utilities because co-ops are owned by their customers, and customer-members elect the men and women who serve on the Board of Directors. 

Co-ops also issue capital credits to their customer-members.  What are capital credits?  They are the member’s share of the co-op’s margins, based on how much electricity the member purchased and the rate at which the account was billed.  SMECO’s margins—revenue less expenses—are used as working capital for new construction and system improvements.  When SMECO’s Board of Directors determines that a percentage of the capital credits can be distributed to members through a general refund, capital credits will be issued by check or credited to members’ electric bills.

About SEPA: SEPA is an educational nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, dedicated to helping utilities integrate solar power into their energy portfolios. SEPA is a founder and on-going co-organizer of Solar Power International. It provides a range of reports, educational events, networking opportunities and advisory consulting services to its members.