Sometime in 2015, Xcel Energy will approve its first round of community solar projects in Minnesota. Community solar is a new concept for Xcel, but it’s been done around the country by other investor-owned utilities and right here in Minnesota by several rural electric cooperatives. Because it’s a new program, Xcel and regulators are still learning how best to administer these projects and consumers are still learning about how to get involved as a participant in community solar.
We haven’t even broken ground and already there is some hesitation [PDF] about how things might look when the dust settles. The truth is, every new program requires some problem solving as it gets implemented. In order to get a clearer perspective, let’s take a step back and build a community solar garden the same way we would build a community itself.
Communities rely on anchor organizations like churches, schools and local businesses to provide the jobs, goods and services that we rely on in our everyday life. These organizations serve as the foundation for our communities. In the Minnesota community solar garden, organizations in the Greater MSP community like Ecolab, St Paul Public Housing, St. Olaf College, and M.A. Mortenson have all stepped up to serve as the first community anchors. They will purchase a portion of the solar output generated by individual gardens, while leaving a majority of the energy available for other families, churches, schools, businesses and local governments to purchase as well.
A lean program
The community solar program isn’t going to be a financial windfall for anyone. Because of how new the program is, everything from the application to the engineering and planning is still a pretty significant hurdle for anyone looking to get involved in developing one. In fact, the program is so lean that it requires sophisticated organizations that can optimize every step of the process. Individuals, small businesses, and nonprofits will fill in after community anchors get them started. Without community anchors that can commit to a 25-year agreement, these projects don’t happen.
Ultimately, community solar gardens will make solar possible for you or someone like your mother. Whether she lives in a single-family home with a sunny roof, an apartment with no roof access, or a cabin on a shady, wooded lake, your mother should be able to participate in home-grown solar energy that creates jobs right here in Minnesota. And eventually she will be able to do so at a reasonable price — no more than her current electric bill.
In some places, that price point is already here. For the Xcel gardens that will be chosen over the next several years, the price point will go down as more and more families, schools, churches, businesses and organizations are able to get involved. Remember, this is the first time Minnesota is working through a program like this. In order for these projects to become your mother’s community solar garden, we need community anchors to step up and move these projects to reality.
Michael Noble is the executive director of Fresh Energy, a policy nonprofit based in St Paul.
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