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Complaints raised over Minnesota Power’s plan for solar expansion

Representatives of several green energy and environmental groups called out Minnesota Power on Thursday for limiting public access to building community solar gardens in Northeastern Minnesota.

The Duluth-based utility in September announced plans to build solar gardens where customers can buy shares of the emissions-free electricity. It’s the first chance for Minnesota Power customers to invest in a community solar garden that spreads out the cost of solar energy.

The concept offers an entry into solar for customers, residential and commercial, who may not have the space or the proper sun exposure to erect solar panels on their own property, or for people who rent.

The groups say they love the idea to increase solar electricity generated in Minnesota. But they want more freedom to have solar gardens sprouting on schools, churches, community centers and other public locations. They say Minnesota Power’s restrictions have stifled that effort as the utility tries to control where and how many solar gardens are built.

One group, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, says it has the money, expertise, location and even subscribers all lined up to do its own community solar project. But the group says Minnesota Power has rejected its plan.

“The intent of the law, and the history of community solar gardens across the country, is to spread out the benefits across the community. Minnesota Power has taken out the heart of what community gardens are intended to be,” said Natalie Cook, an organizer for the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

But Minnesota Power officials counter that spreading out community solar gardens and requiring the utility to pay a higher rate for that electricity will force its other, non-solar customers to subsidize the solar rates.

“We just don’t think that’s fair,” said Margaret Hodnik, vice president of regulatory and government affairs for Minnesota Power.

Hodnik noted that any individual or group — including churches, schools and community organizations — can build a solar array, receive credits and sell that electricity to Minnesota Power. They just can’t sell subscriptions to that solar power.

“We’re not trying to limit solar here. We’re trying to do solar in the most cost-effective way for our customers,” Hodnik said.

Minnesota Power in September announced plans to build two solar gardens, one on its own property at Rice Lake Road and Arrowhead Road, and another, larger project built and operated by a third-party installer.

The environmental groups have sent comments to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission urging the state regulators to change Minnesota Power’s plans.

Minnesota Power is moving to comply with a state mandate to produce 1.5 percent of its retail electricity from solar energy by 2020.

Under the utility’s current plan, 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.

Solar makes sense in the Northland because it's about as sunny here as in places such as Houston or Tallahassee, Fla. And experts say the photovoltaic cells are more efficient when temperatures are lower, as long as the sun is shining.

The September plan was 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.