Trevor and Abby Chat Solar Gardens

In 2013, the State of Minnesota enacted 216B.1641 Community Solar Garden, which established the Xcel Energy Community Solar Garden Program. This program brought a lot of excitement to the Minnesota solar industry, leading to an influx of solar developers and long queue of solar garden applications. Because the program is new and has generated a lot of interest, there have been a few bumps along the way.

The Sustainable Communities team at GPI works with a number of stakeholders who are involved with or impacted by this program. My colleague Trevor Drake and I decided to have a conversation to see if we could help people better understand this program.

Note: The following conversation identifies us by last name; Trevor is not to be confused with Canadian hip-hop sensation Drake.

DRAKE: Are we doing this chat blog thing?

FINIS: Yeah, we're doing it!

DRAKE: I have to admit I'm not totally sure what your idea is, but I'm willing to go along with it.

FINIS: No problem. There’s been a lot of news coverage in Minnesota of community solar – some good, some not so good – and since we both work in the area, I thought we could have a conversation about what’s going on and share it with everyone.

DRAKE: Ah. Ok, perfect.

 

Subscribing to Community Solar Gardens

FINIS: Great! Let’s dig in. CERTs (Clean Energy Resource Teams) has been at the center of providing good information to residents, businesses, and local governments regarding community solar gardens in Minnesota. Can you describe some of that work?

DRAKE: We're serving as a neutral source of information on community solar across the state, both for utilities and customers. We have a number of resources to help customers make smart, informed decisions about subscribing to solar gardens, and we're also helping cooperative and municipal utilities understand the solar garden models being deployed by other utilities.

Unlike many cooperative utility solar garden programs — where the utility builds, operates, and manages subscriptions for the garden — Xcel Energy's program in Minnesota allows private developers to build and manage the gardens. This is good for creating competition, but in some cases it's also led to sales pressure from these developers.

FINIS: Minnesota Public Radio recently ran an article that made it sound like some people have had concerns about community solar subscriptions. What are some of the issues people are having? 

DRAKE: Some of the issues have been around pressure from developers, as well as the length of contracts that customers are being asked to sign, which are often 20-25 years. That's a long time for any kind of contract, especially in a market that's brand new. In order to understand what you're signing, you have to ask a lot of questions, read the contract carefully, and in many cases, make a judgement call about what electricity prices will do over the next 25 years, which is difficult even for experts in the field.

FINIS: Seems like the program has brought a ton of solar companies and jobs to the state, but in a way that can make it tricky for an individual customer to navigate. Are there resources available to help them understand what questions they should be asking? 

DRAKE: Funny you should ask. CERTs has developed a number of resources to help potential solar garden subscribers understand what questions to ask, what pieces of information are available to them, and even a calculator that can help them understand what their financial advantage or disadvantage might be over the life of their agreement depending on what electricity costs do in the future. These are available at mncerts.org/solargardens. I should add that we're continuing to develop new resources.

FINIS: Cool. Are those in alignment with Xcel’s resources?

DRAKE: Yes! Actually, Xcel links directly to these materials from their website.

 

Local Governments See the Benefit

FINIS: There was also an article in the Star Tribune that highlighted community solar contracts for local governments. I know you've been working on that project - could you discuss what's been going on with local governments?

DRAKE: Even though local governments arguably have a higher capacity for understanding these contracts, they also have a much higher threshold of scrutiny as they're using public dollars for their subscription payments. Because this is so new, very few local governments have the technical and legal expertise to understand, much less negotiate, for a competitive contract with a solar garden developer. Additionally, it's not always clear whether and how an entity's existing purchasing policies apply to solar garden subscriptions.

Despite these challenges, many local governments would like to subscribe their public buildings to solar gardens because they see an opportunity to save taxpayers money and/or meet their entity's environmental goals.

FINIS: Interesting. Over the life of the subscription (25 years), I would assume local governments would be looking at deals that would save money for their taxpayers. Have they been finding this to be the case with the contracts they've been able to negotiate?

DRAKE: It's definitely possible to negotiate for a contract that will save taxpayers money over the term of the subscription agreement. However, there's currently no public database of these contracts so it's hard to know when you see a news story what the exact terms were.

FINIS: This is such an awesome and unprecedented collaboration between metro communities and the Met Council. How did it come about?  

DRAKE: It actually started from two places: Hennepin County submitted an application to our Clean Energy Accelerator program for assistance with figuring out how to evaluate and procure solar garden subscriptions for the County. At the same time, the Metropolitan Council had been building expertise on that very subject. Leah Hiniker from Hennepin County brought everyone together to figure out how we could collaborate, and it blossomed from there.

 

Help is Available!

FINIS: What's the Clean Energy Accelerator? 

DRAKE: I like to think of it as a Want-Ad for Metro CERT to assist communities with clean energy projects. We put out a request for proposals that says, "We want to help communities with understanding and implementing clean energy projects," and communities that want our assistance apply for it. It might seem like a hassle to do this, but in fact it has proven really useful for identifying communities that are motivated and would like assistance. It also allows us to direct our time to the projects that are the best fit for our staff expertise.

FINIS: Cool! How often is that available? 

DRAKE: For bigger projects, we have an application round roughly every 18 months. For smaller projects, applications are accepted on a rolling basis. We're currently accepting applications for the "bigger" projects, due March 24th. (Find the RFP here: Metro Clean Energy Accelerator

FINIS: Back to the current project. With so many communities participating, how much solar are we looking at? 

DRAKE: In total, the 31 participating local governments said they'd be interested in subscriptions totaling 180 MW of solar power. They received opportunities for about 70 MW from 5 developers, and I expect roughly 30 MW worth of subscriptions will be executed with developers.

FINIS: Wow. So the demand for solar energy way surpasses what's available — why is so little available? 

DRAKE: One reason is that these gardens need to be sited and approved on land and on the electric grid. This can be a difficult process, especially when navigating local land use and zoning policies. Speaking of those policies, I've heard that the Grow Solar Partnership is working to address land use barriers to solar. What exactly is the Grow Solar Partnership?

FINIS: Oh you want to ask me some questions now? 

DRAKE: Yes, my turn.

 

Making Solar Gardens Work in Your Community

FINIS: The Grow Solar Partnership is a collaboration between a number of organizations who are working to bring down the soft costs of solar in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois to make solar more cost effective. 

DRAKE: What do you mean by the "soft costs”?

FINIS: The so called "hard costs," including the panels themselves and any racking material, have come down tremendously in the last decade. The “soft costs” are the non-hardware elements of a solar installation (e.g., permitting, marketing, etc.). In the U.S. these costs have remained high, in part, because of a lack of transparency and consistency across local governments in terms of planning, zoning, and permitting. We work with local governments to help them address solar through their policy and regulatory tools in a way that is tailored to their community to help bring soft costs down and lower the overall cost of any solar installation. 

DRAKE: What are some of the regulatory tools that local governments can use?

FINIS: Local governments have a number of tools at their disposal. They can permit solar development as an accessory and/or principal land use through zoning regulation; planning documents can be used to acknowledge the solar resource, set energy goals, and guide how solar is incorporated into their community; and permitting tools allow local governments to make a clear, transparent, and consistent process for developers to follow. 

What's most interesting and relevant for solar is how dramatically the market has changed in the last 5 or so years and how that has changed local governments’ view of solar.

DRAKE: How is their viewpoint different from before?

FINIS: In the metro area, cities have had, through state law (Statute 473.859), to contain an element of protection and development access for solar energy systems in their comprehensive plans since 1976.   

DRAKE: Wow, 40 years seems like a long time.

FINIS: Yep, and for a long time there hasn’t been a lot of movement in the solar market. Until recently, this has meant that in nearly all comprehensive plans have included a banal, perfunctory sentence or two that basically says "we address solar access." The end. But now there is a ton of solar popping up and cities and counties need to have a mechanism to deal with it.

Fortunately there are tools available to help them along the way. One really cool tool is the solar suitability mapping tool developed by the University of Minnesota. It basically allows (almost) any community to identify where it has a good solar resource. Communities can use this tool to visualize where good solar resources overlap with land that is undesirable for other types of development. It's a really good tool to minimize land use conflicts. Also, by understanding your solar resource, a city or county could set realistic targets for how much energy they could reasonably receive from solar within their community. 

DRAKE: Interesting, sounds like it would be really useful. Speaking of land use conflicts, I've heard in the news about conflicts related to solar development. What's happening with those?

FINIS: Sure, there have been a few communities that have been caught off guard by developers coming to town and wanting to set up solar farms and gardens. Community solar gardens, as you know, are limited to 1 MW (utility-scale solar farms can be much larger). For some perspective, 1 MW currently takes up about 5-7 acres of land. This can pose a problem for communities if that 5-7 acres of land falls onto an area the community plans to develop within the next 25 years. On the other hand, if a community has land that they don't plan to develop in the next 25 years, community solar could be a great interim use that could serve as an economic development tool. Likewise, land that is undesirable for any development (e.g. landfills) can also be great for solar farms and gardens.

DRAKE: So communities can think of solar as a tool to meet their needs and goals?

FINIS: Absolutely. The solar resource map can help them set and realize goals in their comprehensive plans and they can use zoning to regulate solar in a way that best meets the needs of their community. 

DRAKE: What are some of the best examples you've seen of communities doing this?

FINIS: A number of communities have enabled solar through their zoning ordinances and implemented solar permitting checklists in Minnesota as part of Grow Solar and its predecessor Minnesota Solar Challenge - both funded by the SunShot Initiative. I haven't seen much for communities addressing solar in their comprehensive plans, since most plans predate the solar boom. But the real opportunity to address solar through planning is now. 

DRAKE: What other resources are available to help communities do this?

FINIS: We have example planning language, model ordinances, and a permitting checklist available as part of our local government toolkit.

DRAKE: Why is the opportunity "now?"

FINIS: Every 10 years, cities in the Metro Region are required to update their plans. That process is getting underway now. The Met Council, through its local planning handbook, is encouraging cities to "get more out of their plans" by going above the minimum requirements. Solar mapping and our model language help them do that. I think there is tremendous opportunity for us to develop solar in a very real way that meets the needs and desires of communities and helps them achieve clean energy goals. 

DRAKE: I agree. Whether through solar garden subscriptions or planning and land use policies, it seems like there are a plethora of opportunities for communities to engage in the solar market.

FINIS: For sure - I am excited to see where solar goes in the next 5 years!

 

Community Solar Garden Resources:

Informational Material:

Technical Assistance:

 

 

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