According to an encouraging report from the Solar Foundation released this month, solar energy jobs are up 73% since September 2012. This means 360 new employees were hired by the solar industry.
This increase in new hires is attributed to solar energy laws passed by the Minnesota legislature last spring. One new policy states that Minnesota energy companies must use solar power for 1.5% of their electricity needs by 2020. Companies like Xcel Energy, which produces around half of the state’s electricity, have their work cut out for them. Over the next six years, they must create and implement plans that work toward more renewable and earth-friendly energy sources, namely solar power.
Another policy passed by the legislature last year was a community solar energy law. This law requires Xcel Energy to create a program in Minnesota for community members, be they individuals, businesses, congregations, schools, etc., to participate in the creation of a solar garden. As Fresh Energy points out in their critique of Xcel’s proposed plan, solar gardens are high in cost and require specific qualification to be effective (specifications such as direction, amount of shade, and square footage).
A community solar garden would allow individuals or businesses to “subscribe” to the garden by paying for a portion. They would then receive credit for their subscription on their energy bills in proportion to their ownership. The details and guidelines for member subscription are laid out in the text of the law.
Last September, Xcel submitted its draft plan for the program to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for review and possible revision. On Tuesday, February 18 the PUC heard testimony on the draft and deliberations took place on the following Thursday. The PUC has indicated that it would likely reject Xcel’s proposal to limit the number of community solar gardens that could be installed. They also voted to increase the electricity rate originally sought by Xcel Energy and it said the company must pay for renewable energy credits associated with the solar gardens. An official decision will be made sometime this week.
Contrary to the state Department of Commerce’s own remarks on their website that there will be “no limit on the number of community solar projects that can be developed,” Xcel’s proposal will put a quarterly cap on projects for the first two years. According to Fresh Energy and Midwest Energy News, several experts believe that this limit will push smaller or mid-sized projects to the wayside, as the rush to submit a project proposal before the cap would most likely see only large, well-funded projects succeed. Xcel argues that the reason for this initial limitation is to allow for a learning curve and the update of Xcel’s technology to accommodate the virtual meter readings of solar gardens.
Xcel is already running a similar project in Colorado that has had success. However, critics of Xcel’s proposed plan have pointed out that the fees Xcel will charge solar garden subscribers is significantly higher than the fees charged in Colorado. Furthermore, the subscribers in Colorado earn more cents per kilowatt-hour.
Although most agree that Xcel’s plan is a positive step forward, it seems Xcel is not following the letter of the law as closely as it should. Solar energy is about to take center stage in Minnesota, and Xcel should revise its plan to be more accommodating and fair to those who wish to participate in this new initiative.
MPIRG Communications Intern