Amid Minnesota’s solar garden boom, Cooperative Energy Futures stands out.
The business is the only developer in Minnesota that is a cooperatively owned: Subscribers to its solar gardens own a piece of the company, too. The for-profit co-op also focuses on bringing clean energy to lower-income residents, often a tricky task for solar developers.
Cooperative Energy Futures’ first two solar gardens came online this year, and it has six more on tap for 2019.
The co-op was founded in 2009, but really didn’t find an economically feasible path until 2013, when a new state law created the Community Solar Garden program.
“It allowed us to do what our intent has been: community ownership of clean energy,” said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, the co-op’s general manager.
The state’s pioneering community solar garden program is aimed at residents, businesses and governments that want solar energy without setting up their own solar arrays.
Over the past two years, 140 individual gardens have sprung up, which together can generate as much electricity as a major fossil fuel power plant (though not continuously).
Companies like south Minneapolis-based Cooperative Energy Futures develop the solar gardens, arrange financing and sell subscriptions to electricity consumers. Xcel Energy buys and distributes the electricity generated by the solar gardens.
With most solar gardens, subscribers get electricity at rates lower than or equal to those charged by Xcel — and they get the satisfaction of directly contributing to clean energy production.
Cooperative Energy maintains an equity stake in the gardens it develops. The co-op currently has 500 members, and it expects to have 300 more as solar gardens come online next year.
“It’s the members of the co-op who will receive the financial benefits,” said Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a faith-based effort that promotes clean energy and social justice. The co-op’s focus is on wealth building for the community, not wealth building for the investor.
Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light has been a key marketing partner for Cooperative Energy Futures. The partnership’s first effort, a community solar garden atop Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis, went online earlier this year. The second, which went online last month, is atop the Edina public works building.
Four more solar gardens are under construction, and Cooperative Energy has arranged financing for another two to be built next year.
Financing solar gardens that rely mostly on residential subscribers is more difficult than those that depend primarily on business or government customers. The latter present economies of scale, and potentially less risk.
“The vast majority of financiers don’t even want to look at residential,” DenHerder-Thomas said.
And they’re particularly averse to lower-income consumers, since they often have lower credit scores. Cooperative Energy Futures has developed a model to counteract that problem.
Each of the co-op’s gardens has a large institutional subscriber that contracts to buy 10 to 20 percent of output. That large subscriber will take over the power purchase commitments of any residential subscriber who exits the solar garden — effectively erasing credit risk.
In the Edina project, the city of Edina is the large subscriber, while the Masjid An-Nur mosque fills that role for the North Side solar garden.
Cooperative Energy Futures is “very unique, especially with low-income residents,” said David Shaffer, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association, a trade group. The co-op’s financing model requires “a lot of extra work” for a developer.
When a solar garden is completed, the co-op’s members will have some equity, though the majority stake will be held by a regional bank. The bank is the “tax investor,” DenHerder-Thomas said, netting the 30 percent federal tax credits available to solar projects.
But each project also entails a “partnership flip,” in which co-op members gain majority equity after 10 years, he said.
DenHerder-Thomas, 31, was one of the founders of Cooperative Energy Futures. He grew up in Jersey City, N.J., and has been an organizer on climate change issues since he was in high school. He came to Minnesota to attend Macalester College, where he graduated with a degree in environmental studies.
DenHerder-Thomas has put his environmental concerns into action with Cooperative Energy Futures.
“I see climate change as a massive and urgent public issue that we need to do something about now,” he said.