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New project expands solar offerings for Minn. residents

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One of the solar farms in CleanChoice Energy's new community solar project
One of the solar farms in CleanChoice Energy's new community solar project.
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Minnesotans wanting clean, renewable energy are getting another option as a new network of community solar farms goes online. 

Starting Tuesday, residents in 34 Minnesota counties will be able to sign up for CleanChoice Energy's new network of eight solar farms.

For people living in those counties, the project offers a simple, new way to get solar energy for their homes and, CleanChoice hopes, eventually a smaller electric bill for those enrolled. 

Six of the farms are already on Xcel Energy's grid, with the final two expected to join in the next couple months. 

Collectively, the eight farms will produce 42.5 megawatts of solar energy. That's enough to power almost 7,000 homes, according to industry estimates.

At the end of 2017, Minnesota had 715 megawatts in total solar capacity. About 295 megawatts of that amount were considered community solar. 

"Not only will this portfolio expand the overall available capacity of the community solar market by over 10 percent, but it allows for residential subscribers to access community solar," said Laura Pagliarulo, a managing director for CleanChoice. "So we're expanding the availability of residential subscriptions by over 50 percent, which is really exciting."

Community solar projects are driving solar's overall growth in Minnesota. Xcel Energy controls most of the community solar grid, though 30 utilities dipped into the industry last year

The goal of community solar projects is to facilitate solar power options for interested people without requiring them to install panels on their roof. It spreads the work and cost. 

Part of CleanChoice's intent for the project is to make it easier for residents, rather than just businesses, to access solar power. 

CleanChoice won a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop an easy online experience for joining community solar projects, said Kate Colarulli, a vice-president for the company.

The new Minnesota solar network is one of the first projects to use this technology, she said, which has been in the works for more than a year.  

"We're really proud that this is like a 10-minute signup experience as opposed to something that would require multiple sit-down meetings, loans, etc.," Colarulli said. There's no initial investment required to sign up, either.

It's difficult to predict how many homes will be able to get power from the eight new solar farms, given the range of power different residences draw. But CleanChoice says the network will displace 20,000 tons of carbon pollution each year by switching from energy sources that pollute the air.