Minnesota Power to Partner with PUC to Build Community Solar Garden

by Simon Gretton

Recently the Grand Rapids PUC voted to partner with MN Power to move forward with the development of a Community Solar Garden in Grand Rapids. Many people, including members of our team that have been working on this had mixed feelings about the vote to work with MN Power. At this time however, we think this is the most viable option if we want plans for the Community Solar Garden to move forward. Here is some background and context for how and why this decision was made.

As many of you know, Cliburn and Associates, a well respected and independent community solar consulting firm was hired by the Grand Rapids PUC last summer to look in to the feasibility of having a Community Solar Garden in Grand Rapids, and potentially develop an optimum community solar program design. Based on the favorable report from Cliburn and Associates, the Grand Rapids PUC was set to move toward the development of a Request For Proposal for a developer to build a Community Solar array and battery storage system. The solar array and storage system would then be owned by the developer, and the Grand Rapids PUC would sign an agreement to purchase the power produced by the system. This was considered by all involved to be a much more workable and practical option than having the Grand Rapids PUC design, develop, build, and own the array directly themselves. This option would also allow a private developer to pull together beneficial investment opportunities that are not available to publicly owned and governmental entities.

The Grand Rapids PUC currently has a contract to purchase its wholesale electricity from MN Power. This contract has a clause that allows the Grand Rapids PUC to get up to 10% of their electricity from local sources, other than MN Power. It was this clause that gave the Grand Rapids PUC staff & commissioners, together with those of us who have been working with them, reason to think there was room for a local Community Solar Garden within the MN Power contract.

It was to our considerable surprise when recently, MN Power informed the Grand Rapids PUC that as far as MN Power was concerned, the contract between the Grand Rapids PUC and MN Power didn’t allow the Grand Rapids PUC to sign an agreement to purchase electricity produced by a solar array that was owned by any outside third party. As MN Power tells it, this would include purchasing power from a developer that the Grand Rapids PUC would hire to build and run the local solar array. We were particularly surprised by this, because a number of conversations had taken place over the last couple of years with MN power about this project, and MN power only raised these objections at this relatively late date in the late fall of 2018. Also, some who have read the specifics of the contract language think that the contract does allow the Grand Rapids PUC to purchase electricity that would be produced locally by an outside solar developer. In response to frustrations and push-back by the Grand Rapids PUC staff and commissioners, MN Power floated the idea that MN Power would take over management, development, implementation, and ultimately ownership of the Community Solar project moving forward, and would essentially work in partnership with the Grand Rapids PUC on this.

The Grand Rapids PUC staff and commissioners, and all of our team had significant apprehension about this idea from MN Power. Up to this point, this initiative has been a local stakeholder driven process, with a lot of community input, with chief concerns that this be a source of local renewable energy, energy independence, and ultimately money saving for our local community. Our reluctance was based on concerns that MN Power’s interests may or may not align with these concerns and other interests of our community. Understandably however, the Grand Rapids PUC had no appetite to spend ridiculous amounts of money on legal fees and see extended delays and still uncertain outcomes from legal battles. Consequently at the December meeting, the Grand Rapids PUC voted to move forward in partnership with MN Power on this project. Our team supported this vote as this seemed like the only reasonable option at this point.

Our team and the Grand Rapids PUC are uncertain how the relationship with MN Power will play out. It is our hope that MN Power moves forward in good faith and enlightened self interest, and sees this as a way for them to keep the Grand Rapids PUC (a long time MN Power customer) happy, & move toward a business model based more on distributed energy, renewables, energy storage & local control, and get some positive, appropriately deserved publicity along the way. If MN power really does act in good faith, and supports the local community by using some of their considerable resources to move this project forward, and in the process makes this even better for the local community, then our team will be first in-line to credit MN Power for being forward thinking, and supporting a local, creative, cost saving, renewable energy project.

Members of our team will be meeting with representative(s) from MN Power on Tuesday January the 15th to talk directly about these concerns. We will be sure to keep everyone informed as this process moves forward, and as the relationship with MN Power progresses.