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Community solar programs could become more widely available under House bills

Thinking of going solar? You’re not alone, but it can sometimes feel that way. If you’d like the electricity in your home to be generated by the sun, navigating the process for doing so can seem entirely on your shoulders – and your roof.

But two pieces of proposed legislation argue it doesn’t have to be that way. Minnesota law currently allows for community solar gardens, which work similarly to a cooperative in that the solar arrays are owned by those who use the energy they produce. Subscribers reap not only the electricity, but also output credits and tax benefits, as do other investors.

Yet some legislators argue the state’s community solar garden program could use an update.

Rep. Patty Acomb (DFL-Minnetonka) contends too many farmers are being shut out of the program because of a requirement that a solar garden’s subscribers be located within the same or adjacent county. HF653 would eliminate the requirement and, Acomb believes, open up a lot more of the state to the use of solar energy.

Another criticism of the program is that people with lower incomes can’t come up with the capital to participate. Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) hopes to get more low-income households involved with a new type of community solar garden, a community access project, in which at least half of the project’s power capacity goes to residential subscribers. That’s the gist of his bill, HF1397.

On Tuesday, the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee laid both bills over for possible inclusion in an omnibus energy bill.

Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) and Sen. D. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls), sponsor the respective companion bills, SF1666 and SF1508. Both await action by the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

Acomb argued that HF653 would be beneficial to farmers.

“Over 750 megawatts of electricity is being produced by community solar gardens around the Twin Cities area,” Acomb said. “But there are very few outside that area, due to the contiguous county requirement. This would create an exemption that would spread out development opportunities for solar energy. … It will allow more farmers to diversify their income streams.”

“There are plenty of landowners who want seven-acre solar gardens,” said Reed Richerson, chief operating officer of Minneapolis-based US Solar Corp. “With this fix, we can contribute to clean energy goals and provide access to more urban subscribers, all without any new programs. … This would bring us into line with several other states.”

But John Reynolds, energy policy director for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said, “HF683 will make Minnesota’s electrical rates even more expensive. … Xcel Energy customers will pay $150 million more next year through community solar than they would pay with industrial-level solar.”

“Community solar troubles me because utilities are required to buy more expensive solar,” said Rep. Greg Boe (R-Chanhassen).

Republicans unsuccessfully proposed eight amendments, while another was ruled not germane to the bill.

The debate over that bill raised concerns that community solar gardens don’t serve enough residential customers. Long said that would be addressed by HF1397.

It would authorize a utility to designate a solar garden as a community access project if the owner commits in writing that 50% or more of the garden’s capacity will be subscribed by residential customers; that the owner will not discriminate against subscribers based on income or credit scores; and that at least one meeting be held annually with the owner/manager and subscribers.

It also contains provisions that would require a utility to purchase all excess generation from such a project at the retail rate.

Of 10 amendments proposed by Republicans, seven were defeated, two withdrawn and another ruled not germane. A motion to table the bill was also defeated on a party-line vote.

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