Community solar exploding in Minnesota

©2016 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Daniel Cusick

MINNEAPOLIS — Ellen Anderson, director of the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab, can reduce Minnesota’s landmark community solar law into three escalating numbers: 20, 430 and 1,003.

The first number, 20, is the projected megawatts that the state’s largest electric utility, Xcel Energy Inc., said it expected to approve in community solar capacity over the first two years of the program’s life since it was enacted in 2013.

The second, 430, is the actual number of community solar projects that applied to participate in Xcel’s program when it offered its first formal solicitation in December 2014, a figure roughly 20 times more capacity than Xcel projected.

Finally, 1,003 is the number of community solar proposals currently awaiting action from Xcel as it works to manage what has been a tidal wave of interest in community solar in the North Star State.

“It’s bigger than anyone ever anticipated, and bigger things are coming,” said Anderson, who, before joining academia, spent decades working on Minnesota energy policy as a state senator, as chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and as senior policy adviser to Gov. Mark Dayton (D).

Anderson was among the more than 80 people, both experts and neophytes, gathered here last week for the last of four regional workshops on community solar sponsored by the Department of Energy’s National Community Solar Partnership.

The outreach event, spearheaded by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, is among the tools the Obama administration has embraced to expand adoption of carbon-free energy under its 2013 Climate Action Plan.

Similar meetings were held last spring in Atlanta, Boston and Denver, where DOE officials reported high stakeholder and public interest, even as community solar adoption rates vary from state to state.

In addition to state and regional participants, the Minneapolis meeting drew senior DOE staff, including SunShot acting Director Lidija Sekaric, a physicist-turned-policy adviser who has committed herself and her team to driving down the installed cost of solar to below $1 per watt, or 6 cents per kilowatt, by the end of the decade, the primary benchmark of SunShot’s success.

DOE announced last month that it had achieved 70 percent of its cost-cutting goal, detailing its progress in a series of research reports addressing various topics such as financing, distributed generation, concentrated solar power and environmental impacts (E&ENews PM, May 18, 2016).

Sekaric referred to community solar as “the second wave in deployment in the solar space,” following utility-scale and privately owned or leased rooftop systems. But, she added, community solar differs from these more mature markets in key ways, most notably by spreading the costs and benefits of solar across a much broader spectrum of society.

“It is solar for all, and it can be had in any quantity that you can afford,” she said. “It’s a matter of markets, it’s a matter of opportunity, and it’s a matter of fairness and access” to clean power.

Growing interest in the Midwest

A major thrust of DOE’s outreach efforts is to engage solar developers, clean energy advocates and policymakers on community solar issues, while also providing a forum for developers to share best practices and strategies for bringing solar to millions of Americans who lack the ability or means to install systems on their own rooftops.

Among the core demographic groups embracing community solar, officials said, are urbanites, middle- and low-income residents, who rent rather than own their rooftops, and millennials, who have a personal interest in technologies and market structures that advance the clean energy economy.

In the Midwest, the candidate pool for community solar also includes farmers, rural municipalities and electric cooperative members who see solar as a cost-competitive and cleaner alternative to traditional power fuels like coal and natural gas.

The trend is particularly strong in Minnesota, which for decades has embraced alternative energy as a public priority.

Some, like Anderson, date Minnesota’s energy innovation streak to the 1980s, when biofuels became widely available, followed by the rise of wind energy in the late 1990s and 2000s, and now solar power with both distributed and utility-scale projects seeing a surge in interest and investment.

As with earlier energy innovations, Anderson said, “First it’s the policy mandates, then the scaling up and price reductions, and then that same evolution/revolution that we’re seeing with solar,” where falling costs and rising demand drive rapid market growth.

But Minnesota isn’t alone. Trevor Drake, a project manager and co-director of the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team at the Great Plains Institute, said that while much attention has focused on Xcel’s community solar program in Minnesota, the interest in distributed solar now extends across multiple utilities and multiple states.

“Minnesota is now seen as a leader in community solar in the Midwest, and it is,” Drake said. “But there are also lots of projects and programs popping up in other states,” notably Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. And even in states without policy directives, some electricity providers and consumers are realizing the economic and environmental benefits of solar on their own.

“What I’m really excited about is these community solar gardens have really changed the broader conversation around energy usage,” Drake said. “There’s something transformative about community solar that’s been happening.”

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