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Energy developers applaud richer community solar incentives

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Solar panels stretch across Eichten's solar farm.
About 15,000 solar panels line four acres of Ed Eichten's farm in Center City, Minn. on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

Minnesota regulators have approved fatter incentives for residents subscribing to community solar gardens in the state.   

Community solar gardens initially attracted a lot of residential customers. But developers say changes that raised the cost confined demand to commercial customers.   

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday moved to fix that, at least in a small way. Developers had sought even more generous incentives, but say the change will allow for more residential projects.  

"I think you'll see a significant shift toward more companies developing community solar gardens in Minnesota, offering community solar to residential customers, more community solar participation options for the average homeowner," said David Amster-Olszewski, founder and CEO of SunShare.   

The change only affects new community solar garden projects. Amster-Olszewski said his company is still pushing to increase the size of community solar gardens to bring down costs further.   

But some smaller organizations, including Cooperative Energy Futures, wanted more from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, the cooperative's general manager. 

  "The thing that's somewhat ironic about this is that the PUC I think has been very clear that they want to be seeing more community solar gardens that are located in communities, but it's really only possible to do large ground-mounts and very large rooftops," DenHerder-Thomas said.   

Xcel Energy said in a written statement that officials are reviewing the commission's decision to determine next steps.   

"While we want to offer [customers] more choices for cleaner energy, there are ways to do so at substantially less cost," the statement read, adding that the utility's Renewable Connect program offers customers a way to tap into local wind and solar energy.