A 20-acre solar garden once destined for Woodbury will be built instead in Dakota County, generating clean power for as many as 600 residences.

Able Energy Co. of River Falls, Wis., hopes to begin construction on the $8 million project this summer once it completes an agreement with Xcel Energy for transmitting solar power, said company owner Mike Harvey.

Where the garden is built will make no difference because customers who buy space in the solar garden will receive credits on their energy bills — rather than physically connecting to it.

"It means you can have a community solar garden in Dakota County, and somebody in Stillwater or Mahtomedi can subscribe to the solar garden," said Able Energy spokesman Ben Ganje. "That energy will be stable and the price will go up very slowly. It's hedging future increases."

Solar energy also provides "noncarbon-releasing resources," which many people find attractive, he said.

Converting sunlight into electricity has been under discussion for decades, but interest has grown recently in community solar gardens because homeowners don't have to invest in rooftop solar panels and other equipment.

"I think there will be more interest and curiosity as people hear about it," said Dana Jackson, a Stillwater resident whose church is planning a community forum in Mahtomedi on Thursday to examine the economics of community solar gardens.

"We've been talking about climate change for a long time," she said of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, where a forum moderated by former WCCO television anchor Don Shelby will begin at 7 p.m. "We're not thinking of huge projects; we're thinking about what might benefit neighborhoods."

Able Energy announced a year ago that it wanted to build an installation in Woodbury, but the city didn't have an ordinance that addressed a solar garden of that size, Ganje said. The company also explored building in Afton but abandoned the idea because of zoning laws and insufficient transmission lines.

However, several sites in Dakota County were found that could accommodate a 20-acre garden with four solar "arrays" that each will produce 1 megawatt of power, Ganie said. Each array, costing $2 million to build, can service 120 to 150 residential customers.

The company hasn't yet decided on a specific location in Dakota County, Ganje said.

Able Energy has signed up enough customers to fill 2 megawatts, he said, and most of them are from Washington County because of previous marketing efforts in Woodbury.

Jackson, meanwhile, said the public forum in Mahtomedi grows from increasing public interest.

"Our reason for this is to help people learn about the opportunities," she said.

Sponsors of the forum, to be held at 328 Maple St., include church and environmental groups: the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Global Climate Change Committee, the St. Andrews Environmental Stewardship Team, St. Jude of the Lake Creation Care Team, League of Women Voters-White Bear Lake Area, Izaak Walton League, Mahtomedi Area Green Initiative, Mahtomedi City Environmental Commission, St. Croix Chapter Citizens' Climate Lobby, River Valley Action, Transition Stillwater, Sierra Club North Star Chapter, the Mahtomedi High School Eco Club and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light.