Solar garden options rolling out for Xcel Energy customers in Minnesota

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Solar garden options rolling out for Xcel Energy customers in Minnesota

November 15, 2015

Paul Norton drives an electric car and likes the idea of getting clean energy from the sun. But putting solar panels on his family’s New Hope home wasn’t in the cards.

Like many people who have considered solar, Norton and his wife, Martha, didn’t want to borrow $20,000 or more to install rooftop panels and wait years for the payback.

Now, they don’t have to.

Centrally located shared solar is a new, and unusual, option for residential customers of Xcel Energy in Minnesota. People like the Nortons who want cleaner energy are signing up for community solar gardens — with no upfront cost. The first wave of projects is expected to be built next year.

“Ever since it has come out that we have a greenhouse gas problem, I have wanted to do something,” said Norton, who signed up for a Minnesota solar garden planned by Able Energy of River Falls, Wis.

 

At least 10 energy companies are offering community solar to Xcel residential customers, and most are ramping up marketing — with door-to-door campaigns, civic group partnerships and advertising. They promise a no-hassle way to go solar and save on electric bills. Only one solar garden is operating, but hundreds are in the pipeline and likely to be built next year.

“Customers have just not had access to a solution like this,” said Paul Keene, vice president of shared solar for NRG Home Solar, a Princeton, N.J.-based company that has entered the Minnesota residential market with door-knocking sales crews. “We see a huge pent-up interest.”

The program, mandated by a 2013 state law, marks the first time Xcel residential customers in Minnesota have been offered choice in their energy supplier.

For consumers, joining a solar garden is a long-term financial commitment that bears little resemblance to other transactions. Solar gardens save money for participants, who are called subscribers. But the terms of such deals can be confusing and should be studied closely, consumer experts say.

“It is similar to the purchase of a financial investment,” said Ben Wogsland, spokesman for the Minnesota attorney general. “Before deciding to invest, consumers should conduct due diligence and obtain written information similar to what an investor would get in a securities prospectus.”

 

Xcel’s program has rolled out slowly, with multiple regulatory delays and complaints of foot-dragging that the utility denies. Independent energy companies — not Xcel itself — are building the solar gardens and marketing them to the utility’s 1.2 million Minnesota customers. With more than 600 applications pending, industry officials expect solar gardens to bloom in 2016.

How the transactions work

Unlike those who invest in rooftop panels, Xcel customers who join solar gardens don’t own anything. Instead, they are subscribing to a share of a solar garden owned and operated by an energy company. It can be built in any sunny spot, but by law must be in the subscriber’s home county or an adjacent one.

It’s not just homeowners who are eligible — condo owners and renters who pay for their electricity also can participate, as can businesses, government and institutions.

But participants must get their electric service from Xcel to participate in this new program. Several other utilities, including Connexus, offer shared solar, though the options are significantly different from Xcel’s program, which is called “Solar Rewards Community.”

SOURCE Star Tribune

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