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Woodbury targeted for community solar garden project

Solar arrays like this have sprouted up around the country, including Colorado and Massachusetts, where they have been gaining traction. (Submitted photo by Clean Energy Collective)

A Wisconsin-based energy company is looking to make a sun-splash in Minnesota with a unique project.

If all goes according to plan, Washington County will be home to one of Minnesota’s first solar gardens – an alternative energy resource that residents can tap in hopes of shrinking their utility bills.

Able Energy Co., a River Falls, Wis.-based business, is seeking customers to participate in its project, which would either be built in Woodbury or Lake Elmo, and would mark the second community solar garden in the state. The Wright-Hennepin Solar Community is active and producing energy in Rockford.

Ben Ganje, regional sales manager for Able Energy, said Woodbury is the preferred location, but noted the project must clear a certain sales threshold before a land purchase is finalized.

He expects that won’t be a problem, citing successes around the country with similar solar projects.

The project works like this: Customers sign agreements to buy a certain block of energy produced by the solar panels. Those who purchase lock in at a flat energy rate for the duration of a 25-year contract.

The energy purchased from the solar purchased from the panels is billed at a locked-in rate on Xcel Energy bills.

Ganje said the immediate savings impact for customers won’t be alarming. That comes over time as energy costs rise, he said, offering a gasoline analogy.

“If you were able to have bought gas for $1 a gallon, would you have done that?” he said.

According to an Able Energy rate sheet, monthly financing packages – based on blocks purchased – run from about $19 up to $175.

Able Energy officials hope to build and launch the project this summer.

Ganje noted that the project will help meet a state mandate that 1.5 percent of all Xcel output come from solar by 2020.

The Washington County project 1 megawatt field would produce up to 1.37 million kilowatt hours of energy a year – enough to power up to 140 Woodbury homes, according to Able Energy.

Community solar projects have been growing steadily around the United States, and the spokesman for one of the effort’s leading organizations said cost savings tend to be the leading driver.

“Primarily, it’s a financial play,” said Tim Braun, spokesman for Clean Energy Collective of Carbondale, Colo.

Braun said states like Colorado and Massachusetts have been among the leaders in the community solar effort, which has only taken its biggest strides over the past five years. Still, its impact is already being felt.

Among solar projects in Colorado, approximately 30 percent are now community-based, he said.

“Community solar as a category is outpacing almost every other kind of renewable energy,” Braun said.

Ganje said Able Energy, which has installed solar projects around the country, trained its eye on Washington County for its community solar project after tabulating online interest.

“Washington County residents want to go green and save money,” he said.

The typical community-solar customer is generally one who has an interest in harnessing that power source but either can’t generate it from their own rooftops or prefer not to install panels on their homes.

“We know that the base is there – that the interest is there,” Ganje said.

That includes a particularly strong interest from Woodbury, he said, where housing density could make the concept even more attractive.

The Washington County project, which must sell 60 percent of its energy blocks before launching, will first target Woodbury customers.

Generating buy-in among the customer base hasn’t been hard, Braun said. He said pitching the idea in one Colorado town with a large coal industry was brought push-back at first – until residents there learned that solar production would do little to offset coal-fired power.

“That wasn’t too difficult to bring them over,” Braun said.

 An informational meeting on the project will be held from 7-8 p.m. March 27 at Central Park’s Valley Creek A room.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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