Industry says Xcel defying regulators on community solar

Community solar developers in Minnesota are accusing Xcel Energy of openly defying state regulators in its effort to prevent multiple projects to be co-located at the same site.

After Xcel’s announcement Tuesday that it planned to reduce proposals for aggregate 1 MW gardens to single 1 MW applications, four developers collaborated on a letter sent Thursday to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

The group said Xcel’s action “would decimate the CSG (Community Solar Garden) Program and potentially render long lasting and far reaching concerns over an unstable regulatory market in Minnesota.”

Even with a promise from Xcel to refund deposits and fees for multiple garden applications, the move would cost the solar developers “tens of millions of dollars in damages,” the letter said.

Composed by Andrew P. Moratzka, a partner at Stoel Rives LLP, the letter points to a PUC staff briefing paper that clearly states that “multiple Community Solar Garden Sites may be situated in close proximity to one another in order to share distribution infrastructure.”

It calls for regulators to give Xcel notice that the action would be “in violation of the clear and unambiguous terms of its order” and that “any violations thereof will be referred for enforcement.”

The letter also charges that Xcel’s website changed from February to March to reflect its desire to limit solar gardens to 1 MW. In the February version in a question and answer section for developers Xcel wrote the following.

“There is no limit to the number of solar gardens which can be placed on a property, but no single garden can exceed the 1 megawatt PV system cap. While there is no program restriction on multiple gardens in one area, there could be technical limitations that could require expensive distribution system upgrades.”

The March version, much shorter, said this: “The maximum solar garden system size is 1MW AC. The system size is based on the sum of the inverter(s) maximum AC output.”

The developers ask the PUC to resolve the issue quickly because Xcel declared that it would act within 31 days, which “could be today.”

The community solar program has attracted 560 MW of applications since December 2014, according to Xcel, the great majority which are multiple 1 MW gardens.

In a “supplemental comments” letter sent Tuesday to the PUC, Xcel argues the 2013 community solar legislation focused on developing a program that would offer residents, non-profits, churches and other smaller customers an opportunity to offset their bills with solar power.

Instead, Xcel charges that developers have courted commercial interests. Among large customers who have signed up to offset their entire energy consumption with solar garden subscriptions are Ecolab, Inc. and Macalester College.

Xcel said that even with a strict 1 MW restriction on the gardens Minnesota would still have one of the largest community solar programs in the country, with at least 80 MW.

The utility has claimed that the amount of money it will pay for power provided by the gardens is twice the cost of contracts with developers of large utility scale solar projects. The community solar program would increase utility bills by 1 to 1.5 percent, Xcel has stated.

Under the state’s program, solar developers must have at least five subscribers for every garden. The law limits the amount a buyer can purchase to 40 percent of a garden’s output. Subscribers can offset as much as 120 percent of their energy use through the 25 year contracts.

Developers can continue to propose multiple solar gardens across different sites, as long as the application for each site does not exceed 1 MW.

Community solar is just a small part of Xcel’s expansive solar program. “We a very robust vision of adding 2,400 megawatts of solar over the course of the next 15 years,” said Aakash Chandarana, regional vice president of rates and regulatory affairs. “It’s diversified vision, of large scale and customer driven solar…We’re balancing the interests of all our customers.”

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