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Minneapolis deemed "solar builder" by Environment America report

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Environment Minnesota on Thursday held a press conference outside Minneapolis City Hall to release a new report developed by its national affiliate, Environment America. The report, “Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution”, ranked the country’s top 57 solar energy-friendly cities.

Minneapolis ranked 37 in solar energy per capita, and 38 overall among 57 ranked metro areas. The city was classified as a “solar builder” in regards to its position in the ranking. The category included those cities with between five to 25 Solar PV capacity per capita (watts/person) of solar energy production.

“Solar power is booming across the country, and cities are at the forefront,” said Environment Minnesota Advocate Samantha Chadwick,. “The progress we are seeing here and around the country should give us the confidence we can do more.”

The top eight solar-producing cities were awarded a “solar star” title. Honolulu, Hawaii was ranked first with 265 Solar PV capacity per capita, followed by San Jose, Calif., Wilmington, Del., San Diego, Calif., and Indianapolis, Ind., rounding out the top five.

The report suggests best practices for making cities more solar-driven. Methods include policies like tax exemptions or programs for financing solar development, as well as partnerships with utilities to provide financial incentives to customers who use solar energy.

City Councilor Cam Gordon and several representatives of solar projects in the city also addressed the crowd.

“We love to look at the projects we’ve done so far. Our convention center has solar all over the top. We have fire stations with solar on it right down the street here. We have a parking ramp where we put solar,” said Gordon. “Those are great projects and it’s great to look at, but we’re not so happy to find out we’re 37th. We have a lot of room to grow.”

Though there is definitely room for growth, Minneapolis is taking some large steps to become more solar-friendly, using the means for progress suggested by the report.

“We get most of our electric energy from Xcel Energy. We have to look at how we can work with Xcel to be a better partner,” said Gordon. “They’ve made a commitment to us to be a better partner. We've seen how that sometimes hasn’t worked in the past, including some difficulties even getting our solar in at the crossmap.”

Xcel Energy’s proposed community solar garden program was released Sept. 30, 2013, and had been at odds with the Public Utilities Commision and solar developers since its arrival. Critics argued it didn’t adequately reward subscribers, who pay upfront to be included in the program, in exchange for renewable energy credits (RECs) which would lower their monthly electric bill.

The company also sought to cap the program at a 2.5 megawatts of energy produced every three months during the first 24 months, deemed to be the “learning period”. This number was thought by opponents to impede the growth of the project, especially if it proved successful in the early stages. However, it seems Xcel is willing to renegotiate the proposal.

“Now they’re at the table,” said Gordon. “We’ve considered municipalizing. We can see that municipalizing might open the door where we can do a lot more with solar energy.”

In addition to making strides in the municipal sector, Minneapolis is also taking measure to support solar through private investments.

“I’ve been able with city incentives to put up 6,000 watts of solar on our buildings, and zero out those buildings six months out of the year,” said Dale Howey, owner of Green Rock Apartments. “People ask me, well what is the payback? I tell them I’ve got zero electric bill four-to-six months out of the year on both commercial properties.”

Environment America’s report suggests environmental benefits solar initiatives will bring to city as well as economic benefits, like preventing smog and greenhouse gas emissions, which are byproducts of fossil fuel power plants.

“We were so excited to be a part of this solar garden that would reduce our carbon footprint to another level in a way that wasn’t available to us before,” said local resident Jim Frye, one of the 25 subscribers to Minnesota Community Solar’s first solar garden in Minneapolis. The project will partner with Xcel Energy to provide it’s customers who subscribe financial incentive by way of RECs.

If local legislators continue to work on partnerships with utilities companies and create policies favoring solar development, many believe Minneapolis will see a rise in the rankings.

City Councilor Gordon is confident “in the next report we get, we won’t be 37th, maybe we’ll be tenth, or ninth, or maybe number one.”

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