Jan. 15—MANKATO — People with money and solar-spangled property have long been able to go solar by installing photovoltaic panels on their property.
Beginning in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature expanded the opportunity for home and business owners who are intimidated by the prospect of owning and maintaining solar panels, or whose properties are too shady for solar. The 10-year-old law encouraged the creation of dozens of subscriber-funded centralized “community solar gardens.”
But these solar subscriptions, often contracts lasting years, were the most attractive to property owners waiting to stay. Mostly left out were low-income households and renters — a group targeted by Twin Cities-based Cooperative Energy Futures in partnership with the city of Mankato.
A 1.2-megawatt solar array is slated to be built this year near the intersection of Blue Earth County Road 69 and Highway 169/60 southwest of town, offering subscriptions to apartment dwellers, mobile home park residents and low-glare folks. credit scores.
“We expect construction to begin this spring,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures. “In partnership with the City of Mankato, we are primarily focusing on renters and low-income households in Mankato and expect approximately 180 families to participate.”
Community solar garden subscribers generally pay a monthly subscription fee to the community solar garden developer. In return, they own a share of the solar array that can equal 120% of the homeowner’s electricity consumption. As the subscriber’s share of the array generates electricity, the juice is fed into Xcel Energy’s power grid. Xcel then credits the subscriber for power generation, replacing a portion of the subscriber’s regular Xcel electricity bill.
During the long summer days when solar arrays are at their most productive, subscribers often find that a portion of the solar array draws more electricity than the subscriber’s home consumes. In this case, the subscriber’s entire monthly Xcel bill is written off and solar credits are banked to offset a portion of the monthly bill during the winter months when the solar arrays are less productive.
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Subscriptions have become popular because the value of the loans paid by Xcel over the year exceeds the value of the subscription fees paid to the community solar farm developer. So, in addition to supporting a green energy source, there is also a financial benefit.
Cooperative Energy Futures’ new Mankato solar garden will be modeled after its completion near Janesville in 2020.
“We don’t have the exact demographics of the subscribers, but with a total of 131 subscribers, this project has a lot of renters, residents of manufactured housing parks and other low-income individuals,” DenHerder-Thomas said. Waseca County solar garden. “Our subscribers save about 10% on their electricity bills on the grid, and these savings will increase over time. We also cooperatively distribute the profits to members and expect them to grow over time.”
He said most of the subscribers in that project are in Waseca and Rice counties, with several dozen in Mankato.
Both the solar garden and a future garden that will have more subscribers in Mankato and elsewhere in Blue Earth County were developed in partnership with the city. In fact, Mankato’s civic center complex serves as a back-up subscriber for the energy produced in the CEF solar gardens. So, if renters and other low-income customers move out of the area or default, Mankato is ready to take their place and receive power bill discounts from Xcel.
This guarantee by the City of Mankato is important to lenders that CEF will rely on to finance the construction of the solar array.
“We need an institutional back-up subscriber to create stability from a large customer where additional energy can be released if residents move or default,” DenHerder-Thomas said. “In effect, it allows us to convince financiers that even if low-income and rental households move or leave the project, we will have room to allocate excess energy.”
The result is a community solar garden that can offer subscriptions to entire households without the income thresholds or high credit scores often required in the industry, he said. And it serves the cooperative’s goals, even if it creates a more complex subscription model.
“… As a member-owned business, our mission and primary purpose is to serve residents, particularly low-income households, renters and people of color who are unable to develop clean energy themselves,” he said.
In a memo to the board, CEF will work with Mankato’s affordable housing staff to reach out to potential subscribers, noting that subscriptions will be free of any upfront cost and will be portable if a tenant moves within the district or to a neighboring home. County served by Xcel.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for people in our community to connect with solar energy in a way that’s been out of reach until now,” said City Manager Susan Arntz.