A Wisconsin company may have found a way to help local residents save energy costs for years to come, as sure as the sun rises in the east.

Able Energy Co., a River Falls-based solar installer, recently announced plans under an agreement with Xcel Energy to deliver solar-generated power to dozens of area homes, apartment buildings and businesses from a 1.2-megawatt "community solar garden" to be built in Washington County.

County residents and businesses would be among the first in the east metro area to be able to buy clean power generated from such a project, which is coming along at a time when the state's solar industry is starting to find its footing.

Able Energy, which installs solar panels in homes and businesses in seven states, is financing the $2 million project.

Under the program, the company will sell patches of photovoltaic solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity, from the solar garden to residents and businesses at above-market rates, company officials said. Consumers would own the clean power generated by their "blocks" at locked-in rates for the duration of the 25-year contract, said company spokesman Ben Ganje.

"Subscribing customers who invest in a developer's solar garden will receive credit on their monthly Xcel Energy electricity bills for their portion of energy that the garden produces," utility spokeswoman Patti Nystuen said in an e-mailed statement. "Solar gardens make solar a more affordable resource by leveraging the economies of scale that come with building larger systems. Subscriptions to solar gardens offer customers choice and convenience."

Most consumers, Ganje says, will see savings in the long run. And the environmental impact would be just as profound, he said.

A household that uses about 7,000 kilowatt hours a year, he said, would help "offset 100 metric tons" of carbon dioxide, which is the "equivalent of growing 354 trees or offsetting 71 tons of burned coal."

The solar garden, which could be located in Woodbury or Lake Elmo, would have 4,000 photovoltaic panels spread over 5 acres; they would generate 1.2 megawatt hours of clean energy annually, enough to power 140 homes, Ganje said.

Able favored building the garden in the east metro, he said, because "bigger homes means more AC units, and it means more in-floor heat and it means more energy units."

"No matter where you are, there's going to be zoning requirements that you have to abide by; we'd probably tend to go to places where it would be easier and there'd be less hoops to jump through," Ganje said. "Washington County as a whole, Woodbury in general, has a strong appetite for solar and green energy that's probably as much or more so than any other place in the metro area."

The garden will target apartment-dwellers and those whose homes are not suitable for rooftop solar panels.

The utility must approve all community garden projects.