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Cooperative proposes solar garden near Clara City, Minnesota, for Xcel Energy customers

Cooperative Energy Futures is seeking to enlist members in the counties of Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Renville, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine for a solar garden that would be constructed near Clara City. Those joining the cooperative and subscribing to the proposed solar garden must be Xcel Energy customers.

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Solar panels sit beneath a layer of clouds near Paynesville on the morning of Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. Cooperative Energy Futures is proposing to develop a solar garden on land near Minnesota Highway 7 in Clara City.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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MONTEVIDEO — A cooperative that has been cited as an example of how the economic benefits of Minnesota’s community solar program can be provided to low-income and other residents is proposing a solar garden in Clara City.

Cooperative Energy Futures is proposing to develop an approximate 1.4-megawatt solar garden on land near Minnesota Highway 7 in Clara City that it would lease from Tebben Enterprises. The cooperative is aiming to enlist 150 members as subscribers for the electricity.

Subscribers must be Xcel Energy customers and reside in Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Renville, Lac qui Parle or Yellow Medicine counties. The state Legislature enacted a law in 2014 that requires Xcel Energy to purchase electricity from community solar gardens.

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The program has been popular, but also criticized by those who charge the program is not benefiting as many residential consumers as hoped. About 85 percent of the power from the gardens is going to corporate or institutional users, and only 15 percent to residential users, according to information from the Minnesota Department of Commerce on solar garden installations through 2018.

Another criticism comes from Xcel Energy. It pays more per kilowatt for power from solar gardens, which are limited in size by the law, than from its large-scale solar farms due to economies of scale.

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Cooperative Energy Futures has been working as a cooperative to bring the benefits of clean energy and the community solar law to residential users, both homeowners and renters, according to a presentation by Bryn Shank, subscription outreach assistant for the cooperative. Shank spoke Oct. 27 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Montevideo.

The cooperative has won attention for a 204-kilowatt array built on the rooftop of the Shiloh Temple in North Minneapolis. It provides power to 30 families in the low-income area.

The company has developed eight solar garden projects to date, including both rooftop and larger arrays similar to that proposed in Clara City. Larger projects include gardens in Haven, near St. Cloud, and in the Waseca and Mankato areas.

Clean Up the River Environment, a rural nonprofit with offices in Montevideo, is assisting the cooperative. It previously hosted a meeting in New London to determine interest in a cooperative-owned solar garden, and is now supporting the Cooperative Energy Futures effort.

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Solar panels are shown Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, outside Paynesville.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

CURE supports clean energy as well as the benefits of a cooperative model of ownership. It gives users a say in energy and a share of the economic benefits, according to the presentation.
The solar garden program also gives subscribers some stability in energy prices at a time when international pressures are disrupting energy markets, according to Erik Hatlestad, energy democracy program director for CURE.

“Going solar makes a lot more sense than ever before,” said Hatlestad at the Montevideo presentation. He said he is among those who have become members of the cooperative for its Clara City project.

Those subscribing to the Clara City project must pay a one-time, $25 fee to become a member of the cooperative. State law allows subscribers to obtain an allocation of electricity from solar gardens that represents up to 120 percent of their current household usage.

Shank said there are three options for subscribers to the Clara City project. Members can take advantage of a pay-as-you-go option, in which they pay only for the kilowatts they receive. They avoid the costs of developing their own solar arrays, and yet support clean energy, said Shank.

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Subscribers can also join and pay an upfront cost per kilowatt allocated to them in the garden, or a hybrid model of the two.

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No matter the model, subscribers will receive power based on their share of ownership in the garden and the garden’s output each month. They will pay Cooperative Energy Futures for the electricity each month at a specified rate that will increase during the first 10 years of a 25-year contract. They will receive a credit from Xcel Energy for the power each month.

The difference between the rate paid to Cooperative Energy Futures and the credit from Xcel will produce a savings each month for the subscriber.

“Our rate is always lower. You are always going to have savings,” said Shank.

The savings are greater for those subscribing and paying the upfront costs than for pay-as-you-go members. Shank emphasized that pay-as-you-go subscribers can opt out if they move outside of the Xcel service area.

He emphasized that renters can participate as members. The subscription can move with renters or homeowners to new residences provided they are within the Xcel Energy service territory.

The Clara City solar garden will cost in the neighborhood of $1 million to develop, according to Shank. The project will go forward if the cooperative enlists subscribers for at least 60 percent of the garden’s power capacity.

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Protective fencing keeps people out of a solar farm located just outside of Paynesville on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The cooperative is hoping to see development occur in the coming year so that the garden can provide power to subscribers beginning in January 2024.

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Supporting clean energy is a “no brainer to me,” Pastor Jeff Fitzkappes of the Trinity Lutheran Church told a small group of attendees at the Montevideo presentation. Creation care is a significant aspect of being a Christian, he explained, adding: “Full disclosure, I already signed up for this.”

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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