The first community solar garden has sprouted in Xcel Energy’s Minnesota service area — on a farm.
Utility officials, the project developer and its customers held an open house Friday at Vetter Farms near Kasota, Minn., where 96 ground-mounted solar panels now offset electricity used on the farm and by nearby homes.
It was a moment of good cheer amid continuing regulatory disputes over Xcel’s rollout of the shared-solar program under a 2013 state law. Nearly 1,300 other community solar garden applications remain in the pipeline. Xcel says about 100 have cleared a key engineering stage.
Even at Vetter Farms, Xcel’s pace of connecting the 40-kilowatt solar garden wasn’t fast enough for Brian Vetter, president of the family operation. He said the installation was completed in March but went online just two weeks ago when Xcel finally installed the meter.
“I don’t want to make it sour grapes, but in my mind they did a lot of foot dragging,” said Vetter, whose family’s operation includes corn, soybean and hay, hogs and beef cattle.
Laura McCarten, a regional vice president for Xcel who attended the open house, said it was exciting to see the first solar garden in its Minnesota region. She said the program received more applications from energy developers than expected.
“As a new program there was a learning curve for Xcel Energy and the developers. I think we have come a long way, all of us,” McCarten said. “In the early days if there were some bumps in the road, maybe that is not surprising given that it is a brand-new program and the volume we were dealing with.”
The project’s developer, Novel Energy Solutions, headquartered in St. Charles, Minn., is among the solar companies awaiting approval to build other solar gardens. Many developers’ proposed projects are significantly larger than the one on Vetter Farms, raising more complex engineering issues with Xcel.
“We expect to see a lot of the smaller projects going through a lot quicker,” said Duane Hébert, Novel Energy’s director of community solar.
Community solar gardens offer utility customers an option to get solar energy without putting solar panels on their properties. Instead, customers subscribe to a shared solar project, built by an independent energy developer. The power goes on the grid, but customers’ shares of the solar output offset all or part of their electricity needs.
Under a state pricing structure to encourage solar, customers of solar gardens can expect to save money on their electric bills. Hébert said the Vetter Farms customers’ savings will be about 10 percent, although not all solar gardens are expected to offer identical savings because financing will vary on each.
Indeed, the Vetter Farms project is unusual because some family members are investors in the project. In most cases, solar garden customers will be 25-year subscribers to the energy but not owners of the panels. Projects will be owned and operated by renewable energy companies. Xcel is not developing solar gardens itself.
Although it is the first solar garden in Xcel’s Minnesota region, it is not the first in the state or at Xcel. Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association launched the state’s first in 2013, and other utility co-ops have followed suit. The first solar garden in Xcel Energy’s Colorado service region was built in 2012.