In Midwest, rural co-ops taking a lead on community solar

On the front lawn of Connexus Energy’s headquarters outside the Twin Cities sits the largestcommunity solar garden in Minnesota, a 245 kW installation comprised of 792 panels on a plot of land the size of a football field.

Connexus Energy is a non-profit cooperative that is exempt from Minnesota’s mandate that investor owned utilities produce 1.5 percent of their electric power from solar by 2020. Yet the interest was high enough among the co-op’s 128,000 members to warrant the project.

It’s part of a wave of community solar projects undertaken in the past few years by rural cooperatives – entities not often seen as being on the cutting edge of clean energy.

In addition to Minnesota, where recent legislation encourages such projects, significant co-op community solar developments are operating or underway in Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan,Iowa and other states.

In nearly all cases, the co-ops say they’re responding to the demands of their memberships.

“We didn’t do this to make money, we did this to fulfill a need of our members,” said Don Haller, vice president of marketing and member services for Connexus. “We found there is a small number of our members are who are definitely interested in community solar and wanted us to provide it.”

Community solar allows customers to subscribe to a solar garden by paying roughly the cost of a panel or multiple panels (subscribers don’t technically own the panels, the utility does). In return, they receive a credit on their bills based on the energy the panels produce.

The 20- to 25-year solar garden contracts serve as a hedge against rising energy prices and allow customers without a good location for solar, or without the financial resources to install a full rooftop array, to participate in renewable energy.

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