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Financing community solar gardens

For approximately six months Minnesota lies under a glistening coat of snow. While most of us hibernate until the spring thaw, our cold, sunny winters are ideal for generating solar polar.

Workers installing panel arrays in a community solar garden.
Workers installing panel arrays in a community solar garden.
Array of solar panels that combine to form a solar garden.

In the past, however, many factors, political, financial, and cultural, mitigated against the development of solar power in this state. If “extreme weather [is] the new norm,” Minnesota Community Solar CEO Ken Bradley asserted during his presentation “Solar Power for All” at the monthly meeting of the Humanists of Minnesota on May 17, 2014, community solar gardens have the capability to be as “transformative” of Minnesota’s energy production as the Model T Ford was in the production of automobiles.

Defined as large-scale arrays placed on buildings or properties that are well-situated for sun exposure, community solar gardens (also known as solar farms) require areas between 25 and 125 thousand square feet to be effective. Potential sites include easements, “brown fields” or newer (Less than 10 years old) roof tops to contain these solar arrays. Just 20 per cent of potential locations in the Twin Cities meet these requirements. And because of the large initial startup costs, only a few people have had the necessary liquid capital to finance these large-scale commercial projects.

Community solar gardens facilitate their financing by combining the small pool of wealthy investors with local groups of “subscribers” whose one-time fees similar to shares in a cooperative buy energy credits to reduce their monthly electricity bills. Bradley estimated that an initial one-credit subscription of $954 would reduce an individual’s monthly bill between 15 and 25 per cent over the 25 year life of the contract.

A former director of Environment Minnesota, Bradley realized that starting up a for-profit enterprise ran counter to the individualized efforts typical of the environmental movement. But for dramatic environmental change to occur, experience showed him that “for-profit is the only way to do it.” As the “first turnkey, sustainable model” for large-scale renewable energy projects, Minnesota Community Solar is designed to benefit all state citizens using "Minnesota labor, Minnesota financing, and Minnesota-made products."

After Bradley’s talk, questions abounded about the cost of subscribing, the difference between being a subscriber and an investor, and the ultimate impact of community solar gardens on Minnesota’s energy future. Bradley admitted that not all questions about such a speculative environmental initiative could be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Being an “environmentalist,” however, should not be a “special category” reserved for a few because a quality environment concerns everyone. Buying half, full, or multiple shares enables subscribers the chance to earn financial and communal returns in addition to receiving emotional uplift from the Minnesota landscape.

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