By YES! Coordinator Winston Pennington-Flax
Though photovoltaic solar electricity has been available to consumers for home use for over thirty years, it has yet to become a familiar and common sight in residential areas. Farmers and homesteaders have embraced solar electric to meet their energy needs and go ‘off the grid’, but to the average home or business owner, harnessing the power of the sun means complex equipment, a hefty investment, and a less-than-aesthetic use of space. Realistically, only a small fraction of homes have a suitable rooftop for energy collection, and freestanding solar arrays can take up the majority of a backyard, provided that it isn’t too shady.
In the past decade, though, a new option has been developing that provides the best of both worlds: ownership of renewable energy production and a comfortable distance from the panels themselves. Whether you live in a crowded subdivision, high rise apartment, or a heavily wooded lot, community solar gardens can allow you to tread lightly on our planet while saving some green.
Here’s how it works: a group of people decide they want to invest in solar energy. In cooperation with their local energy utility, which oversees construction and maintenance, subscribers (or shareholders, or owners) pay an up-front cost for a set amount of the energy production–often up to 120% of their personal consumption. It may be more expensive at first, but once the consumer ‘buys the panel’, then the energy company credits owners’ bill for the amount produced by their panels with the prices guaranteed, often for 20-30 years. Consumers don’t have to install or upgrade a thing, but once they purchase their share, their energy bill drops drastically or disappears altogether for the life of the garden.
We are lucky to be at the forefront of renewable tech in Minnesota, and 2015 is an especially exciting year for this developing technology. The Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program is currently accepting its second round of applications to fund solar electric and thermal systems for Minnesota homes and businesses, while dozens of other local and regional rebate and incentive programs are available. Last month Xcel Energy announced its Solar*Rewards Community Program to meet demand for community solar in its service area, and more than 425 applications have been submitted. Look here to see if there’s a proposal nearby to get involved. Unlike other states, Minnesota has no limit to the amount of power that may be generated by community solar, so the sky really is the limit!
PS- don’t forget to visit the MN Renewables website to see if your electric coop or utility has community solar programs already available. There may be one closer than you think!