Northeast, a solar garden is headed your way – as early as next month.
Through the joint efforts of Minnesota Climate Action (MCA), Second Chance Recycling (a host site), Renewable Energy Partners (a development firm), S3 Solar Service Solutions (a solar tech installment company), and US Bank (funding), a community solar array, or “solar garden,” is coming to Minneapolis’ First Ward by March.
In Minnesota, most of our power comes from coal-fed power plants or natural gas, but those metrics have been falling over the past decade; according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal-generated power in Minnesota started dipping below half our capacity sometime in 2012 and fell below a third in 2019. We also have two nuclear power plants in the state, which provide about a quarter of our power.
As coal power slowly tapers off, another source of electricity has been clawing up in the ranks. The EIA lists it as “independent power,” largely contributed by solar panels, wind power, and natural gas. Since 2001, independent power has climbed markedly, and made up about a fifth of Minnesota’s power generation as of 2019.
The rise of independent power can be at least partially attributed to the growing popularity of solar panels, as the technology to make them becomes cheaper and more advanced. Many homeowners across the nation opt to install solar panels on their homes, and the electricity generated by them feeds back into their city’s power grid, earning them a credit on their electric bill. However, even as solar power becomes more accessible to the American public, the upfront expense of the panels renders them out of reach for low-income homeowners, and for renters who have no property of their own on which to install them.
First Ward Councilmember Kevin Reich and Kyle Samejima, executive director of MCA, hosted a Zoom conference on Jan. 26 to discuss the future of solar power in Northeast. MCA is pushing for renewable energy solutions in the Minneapolis area, and has spearheaded a movement to bring a community-based solar power resource to the area.
What is a solar garden? The term refers to a solar power array that can be subscribed to by the community that lives around it. The garden’s power is wired into the city’s electric grid, and people who can’t install solar panels on their property (too much shade, too expensive) can instead draw power from this community resource.
“Essentially what this is, you have a tiny little power plant right down the road from you,” said MCA Secretary Jeff Stites.
The First Ward’s garden, aptly named the Second Chance Community Solar Garden, sits atop the roof of the Second Chance Recycling facility in the Mid-City Industrial neighborhood, and is expected to generate 182 kilowatts of electricity, according to Samejima. Power from the Second Chance Solar Garden will be available for anyone who lives in Hennepin County and pays an Xcel Energy bill. If a renter who does not pay their own electric bill because it is included in the cost of rent wishes to become a subscriber, they would have to make arrangements with their landlord. Samejima said MCA is looking into a more efficient way to make solar garden power available to renters in that situation, and expects that as the program gains public interest, easier arrangements will become available.
“There’s so much information out there [about solar power] that even I need to review sometimes,” said Samejima. As the technology behind solar has developed, a lot of information about it has changed. What once was a daunting, expensive new technology is rapidly becoming a viable alternative energy source that is drastically cheaper than traditional methods, she explained. “The cost of solar has dropped 90% in the past ten years.”
Construction has just concluded on the Second Chance array, and MCA is in the process of getting it connected to Xcel’s power grid.
The next step to getting up and running is to gain subscribers. There are two options for people wishing to get involved in the solar garden: an up-front subscription, or pay-as-you-go. The up-front subscription is $950 for a 25-year contract, which Samejima said is a long term investment. The cost of subscription helps to pay for operation and maintenance of the garden, and earns a $100 per year credit off of a subscriber’s electric bill. The pay-as-you-go plan runs for the same duration, but has no up-front cost and comes with a smaller credit of $25 per year.
The 25-year subscription applies no matter where you live if you move at any point during your subscription, as long as you remain within Hennepin County. If you do leave the service area, the remainder of your contract can be bought back by Xcel, or transferred to another individual.
The Second Chance array will be MCA’s first solar garden project to come to completion, though a second one is in the works at North High School. Samejima said this is a first step toward cleaner energy in Minnesota, but much still needs to be done. Although Xcel has a decent reputation in terms of clean energy, Samejima said they should be pushed to take further steps.
“We should be building out as much solar as possible,” said Samejima. “We want Xcel to reflect the true growth potential of solar power in their long-term plan.”
Xcel’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) pledges that the company will be 100% carbon emission-free by 2050, but Samejima and others say this is not soon enough.
“This year’s IRP is said to be the Super Bowl of IRPs,” said Patty O’Keefe, who on behalf of the environmental advocacy group The Sierra Club, gave a short Zoom presentation to a group of community leaders a few days after Samejima’s solar garden presentation. “Science is telling us that [Xcel’s goal] needs to be sooner.”
O’Keefe explained that the next ten to 15 years will be crucial in the fight against climate change. As it so happens, Xcel’s IRP is set to plan out the company’s next 15-year forecast, and a lot of their critical infrastructure is due to be replaced. This, O’Keefe explained, is a good opportunity to upgrade the grid to accommodate more clean and renewable energy sources. Specifically, she said that focusing on solar and wind energy would potentially save up to $200-300 million over the course of the next 20 years.
While Xcel is committing to some clean energy infrastructure, a natural gas plant is also included in their IRP, which both O’Keefe and Samejima said is counterproductive to the 100% carbon-free goal. Both of their respective organizations would rather see further investment in larger scale solar power.
Xcel has to present their IRP to the Public Utilities Commission in order to get it approved, and it is available to public comment at mn.gov/puc/consumers/speak-up/ until Feb. 11.Use docket number 19-368 to attach a comment to the IRP in question.
Those interested in a subscription at the Second Chance Community Solar Garden can sign up using the following Google Form: docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeThVDVHZ8JIPTP680ed88CchR9L1wKcNDZzB0vent0zDJC3A/viewform.
Below: Aerial view of the Second Chance Recycling facility with the rooftop solar array. Once it is connected to Xcel’s power grid, it will be ready to go. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Climate Action)