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Minnesota Power will build Northland's first community solar garden in Duluth

Minnesota Power will build the Northland's first community solar garden next year, allowing customers to buy into the benefits of solar energy without erecting solar panels on their homes or businesses.

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Minnesota Power announced today that it will build a 40-kilowatt solar array at Arrowhead Road and Rice Lake Road, near its Herbert Service Station, that will be generating electricity sometime in 2016. (Photo submitted by Minnesota Power)

Minnesota Power will build the Northland’s first community solar garden next year, allowing customers to buy into the benefits of solar energy without erecting solar panels on their homes or businesses.
The utility announced Thursday it will build a 40-kilowatt solar array in Duluth at Arrowhead Road and Rice Lake Road near its Herbert Service Station that will be generating electricity sometime in 2016.
The Duluth-based utility also has plans for a large 1-megawatt community solar array somewhere within its service area to be built by a contractor with energy purchased by Minnesota Power and subscriptions sold to its customers.
Combined, the two solar gardens - about 100 solar panels at the smaller site and 4,000 panels at the larger site - will generate enough electricity to power nearly 200 homes.
Both projects were submitted Thursday to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, with approval expected in early 2016, as Minnesota Power moves to comply with a state mandate to produce 1.5 percent of its retail electricity from solar energy by 2020. Of that solar energy, the state requires at least 10 percent come from small solar arrays such as community gardens.
The Duluth array will be the first chance for Minnesota Power customers to invest in a community solar garden that spreads out the cost of solar energy. It offers an entry into solar for customers, residential and commercial, who may not have the space or the proper sun exposure to erect solar on their own property, or for people who rent.
“We don’t feel this will compete with rooftop solar. We think the community solar garden program will help increase interest in solar overall and result in more rooftop installations,’’ said Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power spokeswoman. “It’s another option for people who want to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint.”
Subscribers will have three options: Pay a one-time fee and receive a monthly energy credit of kilowatt hours based on their subscription; pay a fixed monthly subscription for the life of the contract; or pay a fixed charge for each kilowatt hour of solar energy produced from a subscription.
While the subscription costs haven’t been established yet, subscribers’ investments could see some financial gain as well as social and environmental benefits.
“It can eventually save money on your electric bill,’’ Rutledge said.
Contracts will be for 25 years, and subscribers can lock in the current solar rate for that entire period, said Pat Mullen, Minnesota Power’s vice president of marketing and corporate communications.
Solar makes sense in the Northland because it’s about as sunny here as places like Houston, Texas or Tallahassee, Florida. And experts say the photovoltaic cells are more efficient when temperatures are cooler, as long as the sun is shining.
Minnesota Power says the community solar garden plans will become part of its ongoing effort to reduce coal-burning power plants that churn out carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that most scientists studying the issue say is spurring global climate change.
The utility has pledged to reduce its coal burning and generate one-third of its electricity from renewable sources - sun, wind and hydroelectric - one-third from natural gas and one-third from coal within about 15 years.
Mindy Granley, director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said UMD will look at buying into the solar garden as a way to help the university meet its own greenhouse gas reduction goals.
The program “could provide additional solar power generation without the risk and maintenance that come with mounting arrays on campus roofs,” Granley said.
It’s the second major solar move by Minnesota Power. In 2014 the utility announced it was partnering with the Minnesota National Guard to build a huge 10-megawatt utility-scale solar energy array covering 100 acres at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota - enough energy to power about 2,000 homes.
The utility this year also began offering a Solar Energy Analysis program to help interested customers decide if a solar energy system is the right fit for their home or business.
The pilot community solar program is available to retail residential and business customers anywhere in Minnesota Power’s service territory. Once approved by the PUC, Minnesota Power will accept applicants for community solar on a first-come, first-served basis. Until then interested customers can call (218) 355-3720 or email solarprogram@mnpower.com .

Related Topics: MINNESOTA POWERENVIRONMENT
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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