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Community solar gardens go rural

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Ed Eichten
"This is so people who want to get into solar can do it," Ed Eichten said. "They can have the panels on my place."
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Bison farmer and cheesemaker Ed Eichten was rifling through his office, a cluttered monument to adventure. He was surrounded by deer antlers, statues of bison, an old bison skull and even a mounted zebra skin.

Finally, he pulled out a couple of binders stuffed with paper and retrieved an aerial photo of the four-acre field that will be home to one of the state's first rural community solar gardens next spring.

"That's where it will go," said Eichten, wearing an insulated vest over his red flannel shirt. The land was only marginal for hay anyway. "It's such a little field. It's odd-shaped."

The 1-megawatt solar garden, which will include 3,000 panels and produce enough energy to power more than 100 houses, will be built by St. Paul's Innovative Power Systems to benefit home- and business-owners who may live nowhere near Eichten's Hidden Acres farm.

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A newly sanctioned arrangement in Minnesota will let anyone in Chisago County or adjacent counties invest in the project and earn credits on his or her Xcel Energy bills. The overall effect is to make it easier for people to generate their own solar power, because investing in the project tends to be cheaper and more practical than mounting personal arrays on individual rooftops.

Solar power
An existing solar array, which was installed two years ago on Ed Eichten's farm
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"This is so people who want to get into solar can do it," Eichten said. "They can have the panels on my place."

Community solar gardens are emerging quickly in Minnesota, thanks to a piece of legislation in 2013 that required Xcel to buy electricity from such projects. Many think the legislation will open the floodgates to solar in Minnesota, especially now that Xcel and the state Public Utilities Commission have settled on various aspects of the program, such as how much per kilowatt-hour subscribers will earn.

Last week, Xcel began accepting applications for its "Solar Rewards Community" program.

Early community solar gardens in Minnesota tended to be located in and around the Twin Cities. The Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association in Rockford, Minn., has built two — and there are two that have been invested in but haven't yet been built in Minneapolis: one on the roof of Northern Sun Merchandising on Lake Street and the other at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

But the concept is taking hold in smaller, more far-flung communities as well, even outside Xcel's service area, which is concentrated in central and southern Minnesota. Besides the project on the Eichten farm north of the Twin Cities, there is one under way in Gaylord, Minn., a little over an hour southwest of the Twin Cities.

"These rural communities have really embraced the opportunity."

In addition, several Minnesota electrical cooperatives — including the Tri-County Electric Cooperative in Rushford, the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative in Spicer and the Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids — have installed solar gardens.

And last week, residents in Northfield launched an effort to build a solar garden there.

"It's definitely emerging," said Eric Pasi, vice president of business development for Innovative Power Systems, which has been in the solar business for decades. "We see outstate as an emerging opportunity and we will continue to cultivate those relationships and make sure we're doing the best work we can for them.  There are pockets of communities that are progressive-minded and doing a lot of solar. These rural communities have really embraced the opportunity."

Ed Eichten's bison
A mother and her calf on Ed Eichten's bison farm
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Like many farmers, Eichten likes to experiment and is always trying to solve a problem. He bought the first bison for the farm in 1987 — there are now 200 — because he wanted to sell healthy meat alongside the gourmet cheese his family has produced since the 1970s. "Bison don't take any (guff) from anybody," said Eichten, once a Chisago County deputy sheriff. "They are very dangerous and very quick. You are not going to outrun them."

Eichten's natural inclination toward entrepreneurship also led him to install the farm's first solar panels two years ago, to help power coolers and other cheese-making equipment. At 40 kilowatts, the array provides a third of the operation's electricity. It's also why he's leasing the odd-shaped field for the much-larger community solar project. "It's something new," Eichten said. "I like to keep it exciting."

Interest in solar is growing, partly because of incentives like a made-in-Minnesota rebate for smaller projects and a 30 percent federal tax credit. It doesn't hurt that the installation cost of solar projects has fallen by half since 2010.

"Not only is the project good for putting Gaylord on the map, but we could say, 'We are a green city.'"

"In 2007, when I started," said Pasi, "there were maybe eight contractors that did specialty work like we do. (Recently), I was at a kickoff meeting at Xcel for information on the application process, and there were 90 people in the room. There were a lot of faces that I didn't recognize. I would say, in 2006, this was a $10 million dollar industry in the state. Next year, it could be hundreds of millions of dollars of economic opportunity."

Building in smaller cities and rural areas makes business sense, because such places tend to have more open space available than in larger cities — and real estate is cheaper. There also tend to be fewer tall buildings to shade the rows of shiny blue solar panels.

"The price of real estate will make a difference," said Steve Coleman, lead designer with Minneapolis-based MN Community Solar, which, with partners, is developing the two Minneapolis projects and the ones in Gaylord and Northfield. He expects construction on the 1-megawatt project in Gaylord to begin next spring. 

"This town had unused available space that we are making work in our model," Coleman said. "The lower the cost of the land, the better the price of electricity hopefully in the end. It's hard to find four acres of ground in Minneapolis that is affordable."

Gaylord city administrator Kevin McCann said the city is considering subscribing to the garden as a customer, possibly to power a baseball field, an aquatic center and a water treatment plant. But even if it doesn't sign on, just having the array in town lends the area a little sparkle, he said. "Not only is the project good for putting Gaylord on the map, but we could tie in some of our operations in order to say, 'We are a green city of sorts. We are tying into renewable energy.'"

Part of what will sustain at least some small-town projects is the ability to draw customers from more densely populated adjacent counties. The way the gardens work is that customers buy solar subscriptions based on how much electricity they typically use and, depending on the size of their subscription and the amount of power generated by the particular garden, they receive credits on their electric bills.

"We took what normally would have been an expense and it became an asset on our balance sheet."

How community solar gardens work.

The project in Gaylord, which is in Sibley County, can draw customers from both Carver and Scott counties nearby. And the one on the Eichten farm, which is about a third subscribed, can draw from heavily-populated Washington and Anoka counties.

"We do have a couple of anchor subscribers that we are still working on and hope to have a more formal approval or letter of intent from by the end of the year," Pasi said of the Eichten solar garden, noting that some of these big fish are in Washington County. "Large businesses in Washington County have approached us with interest in learning more."

Dan Husted of Lake Region Electric Cooperative
Dan Husted is framed by a reflector component of a 40-kilowatt solar project owned by his cooperative in Pelican Rapids.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

The cost of building the solar gardens varies widely, but can involve millions of dollars. Costs for those subscribing also run the gamut but usually range from one to several thousand dollars.

Electrical cooperatives, while in some ways leading the charge, face particular hurdles when it comes to building solar gardens. Because they are nonprofits, they have a harder time benefiting from tax credits; because they are not investor-owned, they are ineligible for the made-in-Minnesota rebate. On the upside, because the solar garden legislation doesn't apply to them, they haven't had to wait for recent Public Utilities Commission decisions before getting started.

In Pelican Rapids, Dan Husted, vice president of energy services for the Lake Region Electric Cooperative, was determined to show that solar can work "in a business market, straight up, without grants and things like that." His cooperative applied a time-honored tactic to its year-old, 40-kilowatt project: It installed the panels itself.

An array of solar panels
Lake Region Electric Cooperative installed its array of solar panels with a do-it-yourself effort.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

Husted saw third-party solar installers entering Lake Region's service area, potentially costing the cooperative business, and thought, "We can do that." The staff used its own expertise, along with the derricks normally used to install power poles, to put in the panels. "We are the local energy provider," he said. "If our members wanted solar, we thought, 'Why can't we develop our own business plan to provide solar energy to our members? We are just as expert as anybody else.'"

It was important that the project, which is sold out, be supported by subscribers and not subsidized by other cooperative rate payers. Partly thanks to installation savings, the project has met that goal. "We took what normally would have been an expense and it became an asset on our balance sheet," Husted said. "There was an immediate rate benefit." He said Lake Region is considering adding a second array next year.

Whether in Pelican Rapids or elsewhere, there are bound to be more solar gardens in outstate Minnesota, said Pasi. "As they see others doing it, it makes it easier to say, 'I want to do that,'" he said. "Word spreads a lot faster in these types of communities than it does in more urban locations. It's a lot easier to see what your neighbor is doing than in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where people are more focused on what they (themselves) are doing... People aren't shy about talking about it out there."

Eichten is a solar evangelist. Sitting in his pickup truck on a frigid winter afternoon, he gazed out at his farm's existing array and the field next to it that will host the new solar garden. Solar panels, he said, "work 365 days a year. They have no moving parts and a 20-year warranty on the panels. The wind is not going to take them. And even when they get dusty, the rain wipes them clean."

The Hidden Acres solar garden will be visible to workers, tourists and subscribers alike. "We will have to set it up so they can see their panels," Eichten said, adding with a chuckle, "And as long as they are here, I can sell them some product," whether free-range bison burger or hand-made Gouda. "I'm not losing anything," he said. "For me, it's a good feeling deal. I'm helping other people do it."