Why you should care

Because community solar can power nearly 10,000 homes.

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Minnesota is on a hot streak in converting sunlight into usable power. The state tripled its solar energy capacity through the first quarter of this year. And, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, it has increased solar output twelve-fold since 2015.

The vast majority of that energy has been led by state utility Xcel, including the 100-megawatt North Star and Aurora Solar projects. Yet while Minnesota still lags in total wattage, trailing industry leaders such as California, North Carolina and Arizona, the Gopher State is the epicenter of one nation-topping experiment: community solar, where multiple clients can subscribe to a single network — called a solar garden — to split costs and avoid the hassle of personally owning housing panels. “The promise of community solar is that, in theory, it expands access to solar development to everybody,” says Sara Bergan, a Minneapolis-based energy law attorney for Pacific Northwest firm Stoel Rives.

From 2015 to 2016, the state of Minnesota saw its solar power efforts grow from a total of 35 megawatts to 68 megawatts.

What’s more, there are 478 approved community solar projects in the production phase — good for nearly another 500 megawatts — and almost 1,000 total in the pipeline. For perspective, at the end of last year, only about 120 megawatts total existed in community solar projects nationwide. So far, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have approved such sharing schemes. But most states have struggled to grow them, including California (where only 15 companies made bids and zero were accepted as of April) and Colorado (which has 28 community projects, but only 16 megawatts installed).

The initial interest was so great that regulators have had to cut back at times …

What’s made Minnesota especially successful is its 2013 law, which legalized community solar without a cap — a decision that vaulted it ahead of the competition. While some restrictions have been put in place since, Minnesota community solar can now provide power to almost 10,000 homes. Individuals are buying into the system, but, more important, so too are public schools and government groups, which receive the most savings over the length of their 25-year energy use contracts. Recently, 31 Minnesota localities, many in the Twin Cities area, including St. Paul and Minneapolis, pledged together to purchase 33 megawatts of solar subscriptions. “They could save in the millions,” says Dan Thiede, communications manager for the University of Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams.

Naturally, there have been growing pains. The initial interest was so great that regulators have had to cut back at times, wrestling with “how to maybe rightsize” the program, says Bergan. The Wild West start has led to some uncertainty, and businesses have asked for clearer guidance from lawmakers. Availability isn’t always widespread, geographic distribution still has to be settled, and legal knowledge of solar policies is lacking, says Thiede, whose organization is working to improve public education surrounding the programs.

Minnesota still leads on many fronts, though, including working on one of the nation’s only “valued solar rates,” a formula meant to better account for the holistic savings of adding solar compared to traditional net metering models. The value is already there for folks like Thiede, who pays a $15 subscription fee, but who says he’s receiving a reimbursement from utilities for his involvement in the solar program: “For residents, it’s just something that many already want to do — and they’re not going to pay more for it. Which is a nice idea, because typically green pricing programs through utilities are a premium [option].”

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