By - Jim Vess

Minnesota’s community solar leads the nation and reaches 400-MW milestone

Energize Weekly, September 19, 2018

Minnesota’s community solar program—the biggest and fastest growing in the country—reached a record 401 megawatts this summer, according to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

The program was launched in November 2014 by Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility. There was a two-year lag as projects worked their way through the approval process. The first 36.4 megawatts (MW) came online in February 2016.

By the December 2017, Xcel reported 58 operational solar gardens with a total of 22 MW. In 2018, the capacity has steadily risen, with a 60 percent jump in the first five months of the year. In August, the program hit 401 MW.

By the end of 2017, community solar generation nationally had more than doubled in a year to 734 MW with 228 utilities in 36 states having community solar programs, according to a report by the Smart Electric Power Alliance. Nearly 30 percent of that capacity was in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s program is the best in the country,” John Farrell, director of the non-profit ILSR’s Energy Democracy Initiative, said in a blog.

While there are more than 7,000 residential customers participating in solar gardens—where customers buy a share of the generation capacity and get a proportional credit for the electricity generated—the program largely serves commercial customers, who account for 87 percent of the capacity, according to the ILSR.

Colorado passed community solar legislation in 2012 to promote solar gardens, and Massachusetts recently revamped its solar energy credit program to enhance community solar investment. “No other state has had significant community solar development,” Farrell said.

There has, however, been a slowdown in Minnesota as there are fewer projects in the pipeline, according to ILSR figures.

“The low volume of new applications is likely due, in part, to the industry adjusting to the Value of Solar, which went into effect in January 2017,” Laura Hannah, a senior policy associate with Fresh Energy, wrote in an analysis of the program. Fresh Energy is a Minnesota non-profit consulting group promoting clean energy development.

Minnesota replaced net metering, which gives solar power producers a credit equal to the retail tariff for each kilowatt-hour put on the grid to one using a calculation based on the value of the solar electricity to the grid based on environmental and operating factors. The two credits have been close.

In her analysis, Hannah also identified three operational tools put in place by Xcel that have helped speed the program for project developers:

  • A public interconnection queue, published monthly and sortable on a spreadsheet by substations
  • A capacity screen that enables a developer, for a $250 charge, to obtain key grid information from Xcel for a proposed community-solar project location
  • A hosting capacity analysis from Xcel providing transparency into the results of 1,047 feeder models to assess potential adverse grid impacts or reliability issues

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