Once there are numerous successful examples of community solar gardens for people to see, it will tell a new story of renewable energy as a pathway out of energy poverty and toward prosperity. Since Minnesota passed its Community Solar Garden law in May 2013, individuals and organizations finally have a clear path to reap the benefits of solar energy — no fuel cost, no moving parts, no emissions — without needing the space or capital to install solar on their own property. The power generated from Community Solar Gardens (CSGs) will go onto the electric grid, and CSG subscribers will be credited at a solar-friendly rate that results in savings of 5 percent or more on electric bills! Community Solar will be affordable to anyone who pays an electric bill because subscriptions can be offered through a pay-as-you-go process.
Another economic justice aspect of Community Solar is stabilization of electricity costs. The Saint Paul Public Housing Agency has signed on to become an anchor tenant of nearby community solar gardens, in order to provide cost stability in what their 2500 tenants pay for in electricity. When natural gas or fuel prices inevitably spike again, we can expect utilities will pass through the costs directly onto their customer base. We are in a race against time to get as much clean, renewable energy capacity built as quickly as possible, to provide a safety net for the low-income.
Framing community solar as economic justice is powerful because the incumbent utility interests trying to slow or shrink Minnesota’s Community Solar program are trying to use economic justice as their frame. When I personally attended the June 23rd hearing on Community Solar at the Public Utilities Commission, I heard Xcel offer an estimation that having 800 megawatts of community solar available in Minnesota would would raise rates for non-commnity solar residential customers by 2.8%. However, shortly after the hearing, Fresh Energy completed some rate and cap impact calculations that suggested Xcel was overestimating the rate impact of the community solar program onto non-solar customers.
A second message from Xcel is that they can do utility scale solar for cheaper than community solar. Xcel’s CEO announced laudable plans to pursue utility scale solar in a late July Star Tribune Article, but such a promise should not be coupled the continual efforts to limit residential and community solar which he also suggested. We are much more likely to get enough renewable energy capacity deployed quickly enough in time to reverse some of these terrible environmental trends if we strategically size and locate local renewable energy to fit within the existing grid infrastructure. If Xcel's tries to get renewable energy to fit their familiar central station model where generation is distant from population centers, then likely fights over new transmission lines and who is going to pay for which new infrastructure raises the risk that Xcel will fall short of the impressive clean energy targets they promise.
Solar generation becomes more reliable when it is placed in geographically diverse locations. If we can get hundreds of megawatts of proposed community solar projects deployed along with modern technologies like microgrids then that could displace the need for Xcel to build one of their proposed new natural gas power plants to meet peak loads. With local ownership of renewable energy projects, our energy dollars will stay circulating within the community creating jobs, and people will feel bought into it clean energy.
These are just a few of the reasons why we need a faster pace for approving and building Community Solar Gardens.