Hugo could become home to a community solar garden that would make renewable energy available at discounted rates to the city as well as to subscribing residents and businesses in Washington and adjacent counties.

City administrator Bryan Bear said the city is negotiating a contract for the installation with SolarStone Partners, a Minneapolis-based solar development company. Depending on the progress of those discussions, the proposal could go before the City Council May 18, Bear said.

Many details of the proposed project — including the size and cost — have yet to be worked out between the city and the company, Bear said. Xcel Energy also would have to agree to transmit solar power from the proposed garden in Hugo, which could produce up to eight megawatts of power, SolarStone officials said.

SolarStone has proposed installing up to 20,000 solar panels on land west of the U.S. Post Office and on the north edge of downtown, where the city owns 40 acres. The property is a low-lying wetland that is otherwise unsuitable for development, Bear said.

SolarStone would lease the land for 35 years at a rate to be determined, according to minutes from the council presentation.

In addition to receiving lease payments from the company, the city also could enter into a subscription agreement to buy solar power at a discounted rate, Bear said.

Under Minnesota’s community solar garden program, launched as part of a 2013 state energy law, residents and business owners who contract with an energy developer gain access to solar power without having to connect to a garden or buy rooftop solar panels.

Subscribers receive credits on their energy bills, effectively lowering the rate they pay for electricity. Those subscribers must be located in the county where the solar garden is operating or in an adjacent county.

The law requires Xcel, as an investor-owned utility, to offer solar gardens as it works to meet a state mandate to get 1.5 percent of its energy production, or 450 megawatts, from solar by 2020.

Savings and value

SolarStone, which also has approached the city of Sartell about developing a solar garden on city-owned property, is focusing on opportunities in outer-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities, said Kaya Tarhan, the company’s co-founder and chief development officer.

Tarhan said he and SolarStone co-founder and chief executive Joe DeVito are concentrating on solar development after amassing decades of experience in renewable energy projects. The company hopes to complete 75 projects in Minnesota, then apply what it learns from those projects to those they install in other states.

“As we were looking at the new solar market that was coming out of the legislation in 2013, it became pretty apparent that it was a strong program,” Tarhan said of the solar garden initiative.

Xcel received more than 400 proposals for solar garden projects after it began accepting applications in December.

“The savings or the value that people can receive from subscribing to solar gardens is being well received,” said Gordy Simanton, SolarStone’s vice president of business development. He said the company hoped to have the garden in place by the end of 2016.

Even if SolarStone and the city of Hugo agree to terms, the project may not proceed if Xcel determines the transmission line that would connect to it can’t handle the power it would produce, Tarhan said. He added that he considers that outcome unlikely.

“You have to have land,” Tarhan said. “You have to a transmission line with capacity. If you don’t have one or the other, you don’t have a solar project.”

Construction of a 20-acre solar garden once planned for southern Washington County may begin this summer in Dakota County. Able Energy Co. of River Falls, Wis., had looked to install it in Woodbury but the city lacked an ordinance addressing a solar garden of that size. Zoning laws and insufficient transmission lines ruled out Afton.

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.