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Community Solar Gardens

web-community-solar-diagram_0Shared access to a solar power energy source

by Lynnhurst Resident Daniel Shaw

What is a Solar Garden?

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a bill that contained several provisions designed to promote the growth of solar energy (Laws 2013, ch. 85). One of those provisions was for the development of Community Solar Gardens (CSG). CSGs are essentially solar arrays whose panels have been “purchased” by members of the community or subscribers. The electricity generated by the array is sold to a utility, such as Xcel Energy. Subscribers then receive a monthly credit on their Xcel Energy bill based on the amount of energy generated by the array, often at a fixed rate per kilowatt-hour. The life of agreements is currently set at 25 years. Subscribers must reside within the service area of the utility with whom the agreement is made.

One of the advantages of the legislation is that it allows access to solar energy by renters and property owners who cannot afford to install their own solar systems or whose property may be shaded or otherwise unsuitable for a solar installation. Data suggests that this is the status of 85% of residential customers. All energy generated by a CSG, (whose capacity is limited to one megawatt) is sold to the utility. Each subscription must represent at least 200 watts of capacity and may not exceed 120 percent of a subscriber’s annual electricity consumption.

In addition to the utility, e.g. Xcel Energy, and subscribers, there is a third “player” in the CSG world, the developer. The developer is essentially a company that designs, builds, and maintains the CSG.  In general, a developer builds a solar farm that can range from a few dozen panels on a rooftop to thousands sitting on more than 100 acres, and sells the electrical output of a set number of panels to each customer, depending on how much of their power use they want or can afford to offset.

Where are Solar Gardens Located?

Proposals for CSG currently submitted are overwhelmingly from outside the immediate metro area. This is primarily a reflection of large tracts of land where solar can be installed on the ground, free from the interference of neighboring trees and avoiding concerns such as structures being able to handle the weight of solar panels.

Locally, Linden Hills (community) and Linden Hills Power and Light are advancing a proposal for CSG. The real eye-opener for many of those who attended a citywide meeting of neighborhood representatives interested in CSG is that three members of the Linden Hills community who are also lawyers are working on the proposal. As usual, the devil is in the details.  Once one begins to explore details about producing a contract/agreement that will involve the development, maintenance and allocation of return on investment for developers and subscribers of the CSG, it is clear that the process can be involved.

Recent developments support that point of view. Of the 560 megawatts of existing community solar applications, around 80 percent involved co-located projects. After talks with solar developers reached an impasse, Xcel Energy announced plans to strictly limit the size of community solar projects in Minnesota. In a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the state’s largest utility said it would prohibit developers from co-locating 1-megawatt gardens together at a site.

“What’s driving us is we’re seeing a small number of developers really aggregating a lot of 1-megawatt projects together and creating what is a utility-scale project rather than something that is more suitable for a community-based program,” said Aakash Chandarana, regional vice president of rates and regulatory affairs.

Is there a future for a Solar Garden in Lynnhurst?

Cleary CSG is an evolving program. There are many questions to be resolved, and possibly years of experience to know which developers and what kinds of projects will be most profitable and for whom they will be most profitable. The significant participation of large businesses with developers suggests that the definition of “community” in community solar is a broad one and that major businesses may be the first to benefit from community solar participation.

It is the opinion of members of the Board and the Environment committee, that at this time there are not sufficient resources within the Lynnhurst community to develop a CSG proposal. It is our hope that the City of Minneapolis will become involved in creating something of a template for neighborhoods to use in the future.  In the meantime we will be tracking the efforts of the Linden Hills group.

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This entry was posted on July 25, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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