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Snow covered rows of solar panels on the roof of Minneapolis’ North High School on a recent mid-December day. But there was no need to brush it off—the panels are idle, and have not been connected to the power grid since they were installed two years ago.
When it’s finally operational, the 365-kilowatt North High community solar garden will produce energy credits for the school and 47 homes, most of which are nearby. But Minneapolis Climate Action, the nonprofit that built the garden, says they’re growing increasingly frustrated by how long it’s taking Xcel Energy to connect the panels since they were installed in December 2020.
“There’s a reasonable amount of time after panels are installed. Two years is not reasonable; it’s ridiculous,” said Kyle Samejima, executive director of Minneapolis Climate Action.
Minnesota’s community solar garden program has been a significant factor in generating renewable energy since it was established by law in 2013. The sector, a middle ground between household rooftop and large, utility-built projects, exploded in popularity for business and government clients looking to save on energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint.
But experts say Minnesota’s program has underserved residential customers and working class, diverse neighborhoods, like those who signed up to reap the benefits from the North High School project. When those projects are built, Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility provider, is slow to connect them to the Xcel power grid, delaying environmental benefits and cost savings, according to leaders in the field.
When contacted by Sahan Journal about Minneapolis Climate Action’s complaints, Xcel Energy touted the role community solar plays in the company reaching its goal of providing 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. However, the utility declined an interview request, instead issuing a statement saying it has connected “thousands” of projects across the state smoothly, and that a few projects were delayed for specific reasons.
The utility said it expects the North High project to be connected “in the next few months.”
Some critics say Xcel is not financially motivated to activate solar panels built by outside parties that the utility won’t profit from.
“It doesn’t fit the business model for these for-profit utilities to have residential or community solar hooked up to the grid,” said Pouya Najmaie, policy director for Cooperative Energy Futures, a leader in residential community solar in Minnesota.
Community solar success
Community solar is a way to supply direct energy credits to customers. Solar arrays typically range from one to five megawatts. One megawatt takes up about 10 acres, but there are also smaller, urban projects located on rooftops.
Most subscribers in Minnesota sign a 25-year contract with community solar projects where they pay to essentially lease a set amount of energy produced by the project’s panels. The power from those panels shows up on subscribers’ utility bills as a credit, which is the value of the solar power produced by the panels each month and the cost of fuel that otherwise would be used to supply their electricity.
Customers typically pay to subscribe to solar arrays to cover 100 percent of their energy use. Most subscribers will save a small amount of money each year compared to simply paying standard energy bills. Credits stored up in the summer often net a profit for people on their energy bill, which can be saved to help cover bills in the less solar-friendly winters.
There are 850 megawatts of community solar operational in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The program accounted for 63 percent of Minnesota’s total solar capacity in 2021.
Minnesota’s program is the biggest and best in the United States, according to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that monitors community solar programs nationwide. The Minnesota program is unique because it doesn’t place restrictions on how much community solar can be built, and projects can be designed and constructed by anyone, according to John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. But the program’s main weakness is relying on Xcel Energy to connect projects to the electrical grid, he said.
“Xcel is not super interested in figuring this out,” Farrell said.
‘They’re slow-walking everything’
In Minnesota, Xcel Energy is in control of the process to activate a completed solar project in its territory. The utility determines what testing the project requires, and sets the dates for appointments and deadlines for activating the project, which includes connecting solar panels to the electrical grid.
That’s been an issue for several solar garden builders, who complain that Xcel Energy frequently takes as long as possible to activate their projects, and misses its own deadlines.
“One of the biggest things is the lack of accountability on Xcel’s side,” Najmaie said.
The only recourse for those builders is to file formal complaints with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, a board appointed by the governor that regulates power companies. In 2021, the Public Utilities Commission fined Xcel Energy $1 million for delays in connecting community solar gardens to the electricity grid after repeated complaints from All Energy Solar, a St. Paul-based firm.
Groups such as Minneapolis Climate Action and Cooperative Energy Futures say Xcel Energy’s delays erode trust with the people and partners they’re trying to serve. The two groups focus on serving diverse communities that are burdened with high energy bills.
Minneapolis Climate Action said it worked hard to sign up subscribers in north Minneapolis, and wants to fulfill its promise of energy savings.
“We have community members struggling to pay their bill every month, and they’re calling me saying, ‘Where are my bill credits,’” Samejima said.
Cooperative Energy Futures is working on a one megawatt solar garden on the roof of a new Allina Health structure in south Minneapolis. The project is about a year behind because Xcel Energy has delayed key studies required to connect the project to the grid, according to Bruce Konewko, operations director for Cooperative Energy Futures. He worries it will make partner organizations Allina Health and the city of Minneapolis less interested in building more urban community solar gardens in the future.
Konewko has worked for Cooperative Energy Futures for a decade, and said getting Xcel Energy to connect projects is a constant challenge. The average process takes 18 to 24 months, he said. And while there are legitimate tests and studies that need to be performed, he believes the process could easily be reduced by six months to a year.
The delays occur in subtle and frustrating ways, Koneweko said. He recalled a project where Xcel Energy personnel arrived on site on a cloudy day: The workers wouldn’t wait five minutes for a cloud to pass so they could perform their test of the system, and instead, left and rescheduled the appointment for weeks later.
Broadly, Konewko said, when Cooperative Energy Futures completes required documents for Xcel’s review, the utility takes as long as possible to respond.
“They’re still slow-walking everything,” Konewko said.
Lack of urgency
Cooperative Energy Futures operates eight community solar gardens in Minnesota, and is planning seven more. Subscribers become owner-members and can vote on organizational decisions and receive a proportional share of company revenues. The firm makes an effort to sign up subscribers from diverse backgrounds who pay more than five percent of their monthly income on power bills.
Cooperative Energy Futures and Minneapolis Climate Action try to make their projects accessible by not requiring up-front payments or requiring credit checks on subscribers. Customers can sign up, and start receiving bill credits.
Both firms say Xcel Energy’s lack of urgency in connecting solar projects is contradictory to state goals to add as much renewable energy as possible. Minneapolis Climate Action’s other rooftop garden, at the Emerge Second Chance Recycling building in southeast Minneapolis, was connected to the grid on November 11, more than two years after it was fully installed, Samejima said.
“We’re in a climate crisis and there are two community solar gardens that could have been reducing greenhouse gasses for the past two years,” Samejima said.
An Xcel Energy spokesperson said the Emerge community solar garden didn’t connect correctly to the broader grid, which posed safety and reliability issues that needed to be resolved before it could be made operational.
“We understand that delays can be frustrating to communities who are eager to embrace renewable energy,” Xcel wrote in a statement.
Najmaie and Cooperative Energy Futures are lobbying lawmakers to make changes to Minnesota’s community solar program in the 2023 legislative session.
A bill introduced in recent sessions that died in negotiations would encourage projects marketed toward residential customers. Those projects would be encouraged to seek low- and middle-income customers, and would be prohibited from requiring a credit score to approve a customer’s subscription.
The 2022 version of the bill did not stipulate new grid connection procedures, but Najmaie is hopeful that next year’s Democratic-controlled House, Senate, and governor’s office could approve changes that take control out of Xcel Energy’s hands.