MANKATO — A decade ago, solar gardens in Minnesota were mainly owned and used by big businesses. There were few opportunities for residents to use solar energy unless you owned a home and could afford to install solar panels yourself. Renters and people with limited income were largely left out of the equation.

There is a growing movement in southern Minnesota to change that power dynamic.

“All of the community solar development that was going on was being done in the most minimal ways for the lowest impact to a very narrow group of energy users,” said Bruce Konewko, project developer for Minneapolis-based Cooperative Energy Futures. “We have a mission focused goal of democratizing energy.”

Cooperative Energy Futures has teamed up with Xcel Energy and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light to provide one megawatt of energy to 175 subscribers starting next spring in Waseca and adjacent counties. They hope to sign up individuals and families who have been left out of the solar option previously.

The one megawatt solar garden on a field near Janesville will be constructed this fall. The for-profit cooperative owned by subscribers instead of shareholders has eight solar community gardens in various stages of construction. Two are complete and running in the Twin Cities. The project in Waseca County is one of three solar arrays in southern Minnesota. The two others are in Freeborn County and the city of Faribault.

Konewko said community solar projects came into play in Minnesota about a decade ago. In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring public utilities to increase solar energy usage to 1.5 percent by 2020. In response, Xcel Energy created a community solar garden program to meet that goal. It allows companies like Cooperative Energy Futures to provide solar energy to Xcel’s power grid. But Konewko said the program didn’t initially provide power to residents as was intended.

“As it started rolling out, it became clear that it was being almost exclusively targeted to large-scale industrial users," he said. "The few companies that were out there that were doing residential were using credit scores to determine who was eligible for solar,” Konewko said. “Unless you had a 680 or 700 credit score or better, they wouldn’t even accept you. We looked at that immediately and said, ‘that is just blanket wrong.’”

The new project is available to Xcel customers in Waseca County and all adjacent counties, which include Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties. So far, they’ve acquired about half of the subscribers they need for the array to be cost effective

Briana Baker, a coordinator for non-profit Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, has been reaching out to potential subscribers at local churches and community events. Her organization provides community outreach while Cooperative Energy Futures provides the logistics. The two entities share the common goals of growing the local economy, providing cheaper solar power to low-income people and providing training and jobs in solar installation to disadvantaged groups.

“Our missions overlap,” Konewko said. “We were just an absolute natural fit for each other.”

Baker gave a presentation last month at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mankato about the Waseca County solar garden and an overview of the different options Mankato residents have when signing up for a solar energy program. She will be speaking at the Blue Earth County Library on September 10th. Like Konewko, Baker doesn’t want solar energy to exclude anyone. She wants people to understand that there are options even if they rent an apartment, have limited income or varying energy usage. Her goal is to alleviate any confusion the public may have about what their options are.

“There’s even a lot of variety within community solar gardens, how they’re structured, how the payments work, how a lot of those logistical things can vary a lot,” Baker said. “That’s one of the things that I think lots of people in Mankato could use a lot of clarification on. There’s been a lot of confusion about which community solar gardens are which, and which gardens are associated with which company. While community solar gardens have a lot in common, there’s also some pretty distinguishing factors from one to the other.”

One area of confusion, Baker said, is the contracts that accompany a solar community garden. Those contracts are in place to ensure there is always surplus power stored to offset cloudy days, or lack of sunlight in the winter. Baker stressed the importance in understanding what a subscriber’s options are if they need to get out of a contract. She said that the Waseca County solar project will allow subscribers to transfer their solar energy to a new house, pass it on to a friend, or to flat out cancel with three month notice.

“That way you have a little bit of protection if something in your life happens,” Baker said.

While Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light recruits potential subscribers, they enter into a contract with Cooperative Energy Futures, which Baker compares to a food coop; subscribing member-owners financially benefit when the company does well.

While Xcel Energy currently connects 118 community solar gardens to the electrical grid, Xcel Energy Media Relations Representative Matt Lindstrom said their role is logistical.

“With this garden in Waseca County, and community solar gardens throughout Minnesota, our job is to help developers understand what’s needed to safely connect the solar garden to our electricity system in a way that does not impact service reliability or quality for our customers,” he said. Xcel Energy customers who decide to subscribe to a solar garden are entering into a contract with individual solar developers – not Xcel Energy. We encourage our customers to arm themselves with as much information as is possible so they make informed decisions.”

Lindstrom said the project near Janesville is one of 186 projects in the design or construction phase in Minnesota that will produce 306 megawatts of power when finished; enough to service over 32,000 residents.

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