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Greenspace: Minnesota has emerged as a leader in community solar energy

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The Red Wing community solar garden near Red Wing High School provides much of the power to run the district’s schools. The solar garden, which went online in the fall of 2016, consists of more than 20,000 solar panels and generates up to 5 megawatts.
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According to the U.S. Solar Market Insight Report, Minnesota’s community solar installations, also known as solar gardens, have the most cumulative operating capacity of any state.

Minnesota’s operating capacity is a little more than one-third of the community solar capacity nationwide.

Community solar subscriptions allow customers to buy into solar gardens, which are installed outside of homes.
Solar developers can partner with Xcel Energy to build the units, while customers may receive credits on their energy bills the solar energy that their subscription

Xcel does not guarantee that customers will save money on their energy bills, as the agreements are between customers and the solar developers.

The program appeals to renters and people who can’t fit solar panels on their roofs, who still want to support renewable energy solutions.

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Right now, there are about 10,800 Xcel community solar subscriptions across Minnesota, Lee Gabler, Xcel’s director of customer solutions, said.

There are 144 active, commercially operated Xcel solar gardens, Gabler said, in 34 counties in Minnesota.

Most of those are in Carver, Chisago, Dakota, and Stearns counties. There are five completed solar gardens in Olmsted County, with two more on the way.

"Minnesota may not be the sunniest state," Gabler said. "But this program is the largest in the country."

About 170 more are in the "design and construction" phase, which could mean completion anytime from "tomorrow to a year and a half from now."

Xcel energy’s solar gardens have to be within the supplier’s coverage area, and a a 1-megawatt garden requires seven to eight acres, Gabler said.

There is no cap on the program, Gabler said, but developers have to find available land in the right service area to expand the program.

"We’re committed to renewable energy," Gabler said. "We’re becoming much bigger with solar, and it feeds into our carbon emission goals for 2030."

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In 2013, Minnesota’s Legislature required Xcel energy to create the community solar program. Interest was high since its debut in 2014, Gabler said, with applications for gardens totaling more than 400 megawatts.

However, since then, other utilities companies have also created community solar programs. Rochester Public Utilities’ program, SolarChoice, was announced in June 2017.

Minnesota ranked sixth among states with the largest total amount of solar added in 2017.

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