Solar power is taking off in a big way in Minnesota, a state known more for deep snow and icy winds than sunny skies, and it’s being fueled by local co-op projects, a method known more for producing community gardens than electricity.
The co-ops — actually called community solar gardens in the Twin Cities area — have sparked astounding growth in solar power generation in the North Star State. In 2016, co-ops provided 38 megawatts of power, or about 15 percent of the 246 MW of solar energy produced in the state; this year solar co-ops are expected to generate a little over 400 MW, or more than half of Minnesota’s total solar energy supply of 800 MW.
It’s a concept that is spreading across the country as well: 15 other states, including California, Colorado and New York, now have laws like Minnesota’s that allow households to share the cost of solar panels by buying subscriptions to electricity generated from a community project.
“I definitely see it growing,” says Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of EnergySage, an online marketplace for rooftop solar, community solar and solar financing. The biggest hurdle to faster growth, he says, is a requirement by financiers for long-term contracts with stringent early termination conditions, to which many households are reluctant to commit.
“Our hope is — and we are communicating — that there is a lot of interest if you offer less duration and less complicated terms,” Aggarwal says.
Minnesota is proving his point. Since the state’s law allowing community projects was enacted in 2013, solar co-ops have formed in territories served by 17 utilities, including a dozen projects organized through the state’s largest power company, Xcel Energy.
“While solar energy’s contribution to the state’s electric power was relatively small in 2016 at 0.03% of in-state generation, solar capacity continues to build traction and is expected to see significant growth in the next several years,” the Minnesota Department of Commerce said in a report on the state’s renewable energy portfolio earlier this year.
Wind energy is also growing by leaps and bounds in Minnesota, producing 3,500 MW of power — or 17.7 percent of total electricity generation — in the state last year, the Commerce Department reported. Combined with biomass and hydropower, the state now gets 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources and is well on its way to meeting a goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.
But it is solar that is showing the most promise. The exponential growth in the sector began in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where 31 local governments are now part of a project with Xcel called the Governmental Solar Garden Subscriber Collaborative.
“By working together, the participants sought to gain an economy of scale in the solicitation process that could help to attract developers, reduce the administrative burden to vet those developers, and yield better pricing and subscription terms,” said a February report by the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute.
The future of community solar is bright nationwide, says Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a trade group for companies involved in local solar projects.
“The industry is growing and the potential is strong given the fact that the majority of U.S. consumers don’t have access to solar on their own roofs, thanks to shading, location, ownership issues and/or other hurdles,” Cramer says.