Finance & Commerce, April 1, 2013
Bloomington-based TenKSolar is supplying the solar panels for the community solar project run by the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association. So far, more than 170 panels have been sold in four months.
Steve Schmidt teaches a college class on renewable energy and always wanted to install solar panels on his Corcoran home but found the cost prohibitive. Yet last year he became an energy producer after buying one panel in Minnesota’s first community-based solar project.
Sponsored by Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association, the community solar project will be built on a small, treeless hill behind its Rockford office.
“To put a few panels on my roof along with the micro-inverters would cost more than $30,000, and I don’t have that much money,” Schmidt said. “This program is an easy way into supporting solar.”
A community solar program offers utility customers or residents in a neighborhood or city a chance to buy panels and have them installed in a communal area that might be a community center or a library rooftop or on the grounds of a utility. A nonprofit, utility or municipality typically organizes the projects. If Wright-Hennepin’s experience is any indication, it could be popular in other places.
The utility, which serves cities in the western suburbs, sold 171 panels at $869 each in just four months. The project will use solar panels from Bloomington-based TenKSolar, which will provide 53,000 kilowatts of power, enough to take care of the energy needs of four homes. Wright-Hennepin’s is the first community solar project in the nation to incorporate battery storage, which will be provided by Baxter-based Silent Power Inc.
“I’m happy to see it because we haven’t had any good examples of community-based solar in Minnesota before,” said senior researcher John Farrell of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It’s a Minnesota-made project that will let the utility learn something about how solar and energy storage can work together to deliver power when they need it most.”
The first effort was so successful that Wright-Hennepin has another community solar initiative under way of the same size, according to Rod Nikula, vice president of power supply. With more than one-third of the panels sold, Nikula is not particularly concerned about selling the rest of the stock — for good reason.
The initial community solar project was announced last July at a meeting held by the company and publicized a few more times in customer newsletters. “The response was much better than I anticipated because we really didn’t promote it all that much,” he said.
Baxter, Minn.-based Silent Power is another state-based business that will benefit from the Wright-Hennepin cooperative’s solar project, which is believed to be the first community solar project in the nation to incorporate battery storage. Silent Power’s product is shown in the photo. (SUBMITTED PHOTO: SILENT POWER)
Customers purchased anywhere from one to 30 panels, with a rough average being 12 to 15, he said.
“I think the people that are buying them wanted to get solar but couldn’t install it on their own properties,” he said. “Around 80 percent of homes in the United States are not suitable for solar.”
The more panels buyers own the more credits they will receive off monthly utility bills, Nikula said, adding that the only restriction are that buyers cannot get credits beyond the amount of energy they use annually.
An interesting twist on the project is the introduction of battery storage units to capture power that can be released later. When the cooperative faces high demand times, generally from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., energy stored in the batteries can be delivered to the electric grid to reduce “peak” power costs, he said.
Though that scenario only occurs from one to eight days a month, Nikula said, the solar array should be helpful in reducing potential peak costs while also adding power to the grid during other times of the day.
Wright-Hennepin’s community solar projects have been successful so far, but the state lags national leaders such as Colorado, Farrell said. A 9-megawatt (MW) statewide community solar program in Colorado was sold out of panels within 30 minutes, he said, adding to its already active renewable industry. In contrast, Minnesota as a whole annually produces 13 MWs of solar energy.
In fact, Wright-Hennepin worked with the Colorado-based Clean Energy Collaborative on its initiative. Part of the challenge in Minnesota is a lack of a policy allowing people to share in the electricity output of solar arrays that are not on their own roofs, Farrell said.
The issue is being addressed by the Minnesota Legislature and could be rectified this session, he said. Secondly, the leadership structure that would best fit community solar — a cooperative or nonprofit — cannot take advantage of federal tax incentives “because they’re not taxable entities,” he said. “It puts them at a disadvantage.”