Minnesota’s Community Solar Garden program, once mired in delays, has grown sixfold in 2017, adding enough electricity to power about 32,000 homes.
The state-mandated solar garden program, which covers Xcel Energy’s Minnesota territory, has 58 projects online, up from about 10 a year ago.
Those solar gardens together can produce up to 211 megawatts of electricity, according to Xcel, up from just 35 megawatts at the end of 2016. (A megawatt is 1 million watts.)
“This has been a really successful year,” said David Shaffer, an attorney for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association, a trade group. “The design and construction team for Xcel has been working nonstop.”
Minneapolis-based Xcel, Minnesota’s largest utility, administers the Community Solar Garden program, which was created by the state Legislature in 2013. It’s aimed at residents, businesses and governments that want solar energy without setting up their own rooftop solar arrays.
Instead, they subscribe to solar “gardens,” larger arrays that are developed and run by independent companies that connect to Xcel’s grid.
The program got off to a slow start, plagued by factors ranging from an unexpected torrent of applications to grid connection disputes between Xcel and project developers. But the solar gardens finally began showing some life late last year, and much more so in 2017.
“They started to come online more steadily in the third quarter and fourth quarter, and the fourth quarter will be our largest yet,” said Lee Gabler, Xcel’s senior director of customer strategy and solutions. Minnesota hosts “by far the largest community solar program in the country.”
It will get bigger in 2018. Xcel expects another 69 projects — with a total 240 megawatts of generation capacity — to be switched on, primarily over the next seven months. To put that capacity in perspective, Xcel’s largest natural-gas and coal-fired plants can respectively produce 530 and 680 megawatts (steadily, whereas solar power works when the sun shines).
Solar currently makes up about 1 percent of energy generation in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The state’s solar power production has grown significantly this year, due partly to the Community Solar Garden program.
At the end of 2017’s third quarter, Minnesota ranked 16th nationally among states for total installed solar capacity, up from 31st a year earlier, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
That trade group’s third-quarter report released last week noted that the “robust community solar pipeline in Minnesota” helped drive a healthy increase in nonresidential solar installations nationally.
Total U.S. solar installations were down in the third quarter and were 22 percent behind last year’s overall pace through Oct. 31. The residential market has slowed down this year. Also, the industry is coming off a record 2016 for utility-scale solar, which won’t be repeated this year.
Minnesota has added about 260 megawatts of utility-scale solar over the past year, including a 100-megawatt solar plant in Chisago County, which produces electricity directly for Xcel. Community solar projects in Minnesota are usually no more than 5 megawatts each.
Utility-scale solar power is 40 to 45 percent less expensive for Xcel than electricity from community solar gardens, according to company data.
Two community solar gardens that have been rolled out over the past two weeks are different from the others. Denver-based SunShare switched on projects in Montrose and Waverly that serve residential customers only.
Residents, as opposed to businesses and governments, make up the largest number of solar garden subscribers in the Xcel program. But they use only 10 percent of the electricity produced by community solar gardens.
Most individual businesses and governments buy much more power than a single homeowner. So, for developers, it’s more cost efficient to run — and easier to finance — solar projects that rely primarily on businesses.
“We were really pushing the limit with these,” SunShare’s CEO David Amster-Olszewski said of SunShare’s two new residential-only projects.