In coming months, a portion of unused land around Shakopee’s Blue Lake Wastewater Treatment Plant will become home to thousands of solar panels.

Construction began earlier this month at the plant, which is one of eight that the Metropolitan Council owns and runs in the metro area. The solar facility — set to be complete early this fall — will be the largest at any wastewater treatment plant in the state.

The facility is expected to produce a little more than 1 megawatt of electricity, providing about 10 percent of what the plant consumes annually. It’s known as a “behind the meter” facility, because energy flows directly into the plant and reduces the amount that has to be purchased from Xcel Energy Inc.

“It doesn’t go out to the grid at all,” said Jason Willett, director of finance and energy at Metropolitan Council Environmental Services. “So ‘behind the meter’ in the sense that Xcel doesn’t see it.”

It’s a new concept in Minnesota but not in other parts of the country. During the past 15 years or so, both wastewater and water treatment plants have routinely been outfitted with solar panels in states such as California and Colorado.

“The reason it’s not yet the case in Minnesota is just because the support system from the Legislature and Xcel is fairly new,” said Michael McCabe, a partner at Oak Leaf Energy Partners, the company building the facility at Blue Lake.

The Denver-based company has built about 55 similar projects around the country, he said. The facility at Blue Lake costs about $3.6 million and is being funded, in part, by a $2 million grant from Xcel.

The Blue Lake waste water treatment plant serves about 300,000 people in the southwest metro area. Electricity produced by the solar facility there is expected to lower rates for all of the approximately 2.5 million people who get sewer service from the Met Council’s eight plants.

Plans for more

The Met Council has signed a lease agreement for another larger solar facility at the Blue Lake plant that would sell some energy back to Xcel.

The “community solar garden” would produce about 4 megawatts of electricity that local governments could purchase. The city of Chanhassen, one of the communities served by the Blue Lake plant, is considering subscribing to the future garden.

But roadblocks have emerged in the form of limitations from Xcel — the most controversial of which, Willett said, is a restriction on the number of gardens that can be located at one site. Solar developers have pushed back, and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will consider that and other limitations on June 25.

An Xcel spokeswoman said an application has been submitted for the community solar garden at the Blue Lake plant, but Xcel doesn’t discuss specific applications until they’ve been approved.

Willett said he’s hopeful that the garden at Blue Lake will move forward and will complement the project currently underway.

“There’ll be thousands and thousands of panels,” he said. “It’ll be quite a sight from the highway there.”