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Are solar gardens a success? Depends whom you ask

Community solar gardens: Are they a great way for homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint and their electrical bill? Or have they been a disaster for utility rate payers, particularly punishing the poor?

Both perspectives were offered at Tuesday’s meeting of the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division. The topic was HF3368 sponsored by Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls), which was replaced by a delete-all amendment and further amended. It would alter solar energy programs, including establishing a new category of community solar garden and tripling their energy-producing capacity.

Long moved that the bill be laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus energy and climate bill, but its provisions proved controversial enough for some legislators and testifiers that debate is scheduled to continue Thursday. After additional testimony, members plan to consider 19 proposed amendments.

A community solar garden allows groups of consumers to purchase “subscriptions” to a central solar facility and receive credit on their electric bills for the energy it produces.

In addition to requiring Xcel Energy to offer new tariffs to particular solar generators, the bill would increase a solar garden’s capacity. It would also establish a new category of community solar garden, a “community access project,” which would require at least half of its capacity be for residential subscribers.

Gabriel Chan, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said that Minnesota’s is the oldest community solar garden program in the country, established in 2013, and that over 18,000 Minnesotans participate as subscribers.

David Schaffer, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, said two-thirds of the state’s 4,000 solar energy jobs are based in community solar gardens, which he called “the most successful program we have in the state for solar.”

But Rick Evans, director of regional public affairs for Xcel Energy, doesn’t regard it as a success.

“Our customers are required to pay triple the cost of solar energy in an unlimited quantity that comes onto our system whether we need it or not,” Evans said. “The financial transaction is extremely regressive. It takes money from the poor and gives it to the rich. … We have priced this energy in a structure where it is unconnected to market prices, and it’s unconnected to cost. Large for-profit companies get paid three times the cost of solar energy and get to retain that no matter how much it cost them to produce it. … The largest single owner of community solar gardens in Minnesota is Warren Buffett. He knows a high rate of return when he sees it.”

Evans said 13 percent of Xcel’s community solar garden subscribers are residential customers, and only 13 percent of the owners of the state’s community solar gardens are based in Minnesota.

“There’s a companion vehicle bill in the Senate,” Long said, referring to SF3299, sponsored by Sen. David Osmek (R-Mound). “I’m hopeful that we can get to conference committee this year and find a compromise that builds on the strength of our program, stabilizes it, and helps make it even more successful in the future.”

Osmek’s bill awaits action by the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

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