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.


Team Profile – Harry Hutchins

Harry HutchinsMy name is Harry Hutchins. My early days found me on the sand dunes in Northern Michigan discovering forest succession, solar radiation, birds, plants and wind. My interests led to BS degrees in both Forestry and Wildlife Management from Michigan State University and an MS degree in forest ecology from Utah State University.  For over 30 years I taught Ecology, Wildlife Management, and a variety of forestry classes at the community colleges in Ganado, Arizona and Grand Rapids, MN. I also have volunteered at the local community radio station, KAXE, for over 25 years co-hosting a natural history show with John Latimer.

From my interests in native plant landscaping and ecology, I want to reduce our energy use from fossil fuels and move to a renewable energy source available to all of us.  Solar gardens can provide us with low cost energy, allow us to develop colorful native pollinator gardens, and grow crops under the solar panels. I see a solar garden as a big step in the right direction in helping solve food issues while providing energy.  In southern Minnesota it has also developed a good IPA beer!

Team Member Profile – Simon Gretton

My name is Simon Gretton. I am working on the development of a Community Solar Garden in Grand Rapids as a tangible way to help our community become more sustainable, energy independent, and environmentally responsible.

Like most people, I am concerned about the drastic effects of climate change that are already affecting many, and are set to be devastating for countless more people for generations to come. In order to address climate change, it seems that conservation should come first, and one way or another, we have to get by with less energy. Undoubtedly the cleanest, cheapest, and best energy of all is the stuff we don’t use. I do what I can to live simply in a manner consistent with this idea day to day. I am grateful that the local Community Solar discussions have been coupled with conversations about local energy conservation efforts, especially during times of highest electricity demand.

As important as conservation is, we obviously aren’t going to stop using energy tomorrow. A Community Solar Garden is one way that many of us could transition to using cleaner sources of energy.

As a foreigner (I’m British) who has been lucky to find a home, and be welcomed into this great town of Grand Rapids, I want to do my part to make Grand Rapids an even better place to live. Working on the development of a Community Solar Garden is one way I endeavor to do this. My hope is that a Community Solar Garden can be something that not only helps the environment, but is also a step in the direction of local energy self-reliance, home town pride, and ultimately saving money. Obviously our Community Solar Garden will not solve climate change by itself, but it will give a great many of my friends and neighbors the opportunity to get locally produced low carbon energy, and live more sustainably ”in Minnesota’s nature”.


Add Your Ideas to Grand Rapids Community Solar Garden

As part of Public Power Week, the Grand Rapids Community Public Utility Commission held an open house on the proposed Community Solar Garden. The program’s consultant, Jill Cliburn, provided a first draft for what the program would look like in order to get community feedback. Here is a link to the Draft Program Design. You can provide your can send comments/questions to Jeremy Goodell at the PUC  (jjgoodell@grpuc.org) or call him directly 218-326-7182.

Photo of community members
Community members discuss consultant’s draft proposal for the Grand Rapids Community Solar Garden.

Thanks to GRPUC as Community Solar Garden Advances

We want to thank the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission and their staff for their willingness to explore the costs and benefits of creating a local community solar garden.  Community solar is a no-hassle way to make “homegrown” renewable energy available to anyone in the community who wants to subscribe for it. The Itasca Clean Energy Team has been working with the GRPUC for the past couple of years to research how community solar programs are working in other parts of Minnesota and across the country, and to determine how feasible a local solar program might be.

Last June the GRPUC contracted with Cliburn and Associates, a nationally respected solar consulting firm, to design a community solar program that is tailored for Grand Rapids.  One exciting new development that they have investigated is how adding battery storage to community solar can add value for all rate payers, not just solar subscribers, by lowering demand charges.  The wholesale cost of electricity is much higher during periods of high demand, and stored solar power can reduce the amount of high-priced power that GRPUC must purchase on the open market.

While the consultants work will not be finished until early November, Jill Cliburn will be presenting a draft of the proposed program at a public forum on October 9th at Harris Town Hall, 21998 Airport Road, from 5:30 to 8:30 PM.  This forum is sponsored by the GRPUC, the Itasca Clean Energy Team, and the Jefferson center. Please attend to learn more about this exciting proposal, to share your questions and concerns, and to provide your input as solar program design moves to completion!

Food for this event will be provided by Barb’s Korner Kitchen.