The stalled community solar garden program in Xcel Energy’s Minnesota territory may be headed to court.
Sunrise Energy Ventures, a solar power developer that intended to build large-scale projects with industry leader SolarCity, is poised to appeal Minnesota utility regulators’ recently imposed size limits. Such a move, which would be filed with the state Appeals Court, likely would take months, bringing further uncertainty in the program.
“I think we likely will appeal,” said Dean Leischow, managing director of Minnetonka-based Sunrise Energy.
Leischow was reacting to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s 4-0 vote Wednesday not to reconsider its June decision allowing no more than five solar gardens per site. Sunrise, which wants to build large-footprint solar parks, opposed size limits, which Xcel sought after getting a flood of applications to build big, ground-mounted solar clusters on the fringe of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
A 2013 state law opened the door for companies like Sunrise to build shared solar projects and offer the output to Xcel customers via subscriptions. Community solar gardens are an alternative to putting solar panels on home rooftops and allow renters, condo dwellers, schools, institutions and businesses to “go solar” without erecting a project themselves.
Although Xcel has been flooded with developer applications — more than 1,500 as of this week — just one has been approved and tied to the power distribution system. That has brought complaints from the solar industry that the PUC’s policies are not clear and that Xcel has interpreted them in ways that cause delay.
“Something that’s gravely concerning to me is that this program be stalled,” said Commissioner Nancy Lange. “My interest is completely along the lines of making this work in a balanced way for the public interest, for customers that want to participate.”
Aakash Chandarana, Xcel regional vice president for rates and regulatory affairs, defended the utility’s handling of the program, whose recent conflicts he compared to the early days of wind power. Wind farms needed to feed large amounts of electricity onto the undersized rural power grid, creating a queue of projects competing for limited connections.
Solar gardens don’t require big transmission lines, but solar garden developers still need to connect to Xcel substations, which the utility controls. “Xcel Energy has something the developers need,” Commissioner Dan Lipschultz said. “The developers don’t have anything Xcel needs.”
Chandarana said the utility’s recent status update on its project reviews “shows we are actually gaining momentum — that we are able to administer the program more efficiently and effectively.”
But Leischow said Xcel has processed “just one 40-kW site,” he said, referring to a 40,000-watt solar garden that went online recently at a farm near Kasota, Minn.
“That is not even a drop in the bucket,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Many of the early applications for solar gardens, including Sunrise’s, aim for an electrical output in the millions of watts.