Why Minnesota’s Community Solar Program is the Best Design

MN state capitolI’ve been asked a lot of questions about Minnesota’s community solar program over the past couple years and it’s time to make one thing clear: Minnesota’s program is the best in the country.

Why?

No Limits

Because there 10 times more community solar projects in the queue—over 400 megawatts—in Minnesota than have been built in the history of community solar in the United States (40 megawatts), with no caps on participation. Minnesota’s program (see infographic) is a comprehensive approach that makes developing community solar projects economically viable and—to emphasize—it does not cap the development of community solar projects. The latter is the key.growth in community solar installations usa

Colorado’s landmark community solar legislation (adopted in 2010), for example, caps the program at 6.5 megawatts per utility per year (although there’s hope it may increase in the future). Massachusetts has just revamped their solar renewable energy credit program to make community solar a better investment, in response to limited development. No other state has had significant community solar development, despite 11 states that have some form of virtual net metering that allows for sharing electricity output from an off-site solar energy project.

How big is Minnesota’s projected success?

Xcel Energy’s queue for community solar already has 20 times more solar in it than the state had installed, ever, by the end of 2014. If it all gets built, it would be enough to rank second in the country in annual solar installations in 2014. It would also nearly meet the utility’s 15-year goal for distributed solar in a single year.

I recently wrote that a state’s solar market can’t really launch without third party ownership—leasing or power purchase agreements that allow home and business owners to install solar with zero upfront cost, hand off maintenance concerns, and save money from day one. Indiana was the only potential exception, due to a (now defunct) feed-in tariff program operated by Indianapolis Power and Light. Minnesota may be the second, thanks to community solar.

Utility resistance

There’s no question that Xcel Energy is concerned about the program’s potential. The recent battle over “co-location” of community solar projects at a common grid connection point was only their latest attempt to axe or slow the program‘s implementation. Already, they’ve delayed the program launch for nearly two years fighting over fees, compensation for solar production, and now project sizes, aware that the pending expiration of the federal tax credit in 2016 reduces the threat from non-utility solar projects.

Bottom Line: this program is not bad

I worked closely with advocates in Minnesota on the legislation, as part of a suite of pro-solar policies that passed in 2013. I’ve written extensively on community solar policies, from a 2010 report on the obstacles and opportunities to podcasts with leaders in the community solar movement. I’ve testified on community solar proposals in California and Maryland, and lent my advice in other states.

If the projects develop as expected in Minnesota, there will be no contest. To say it like a Minnesotan: “Minnesota’s community solar program is not too bad.”

minnesota community solar infographic 2 - ILSR

Photo credit: Michael Hicks via Flickr (edited by John Farrell, CC BY 2.0 license)

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Democratic Energy weekly update.

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