Grand Rapids Community Solar Plus

Fact Sheet/Update November 2018
The Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission (GRPUC)is working with the Itasca Clean Energy Team (ICET) on a proposal to develop a Community Solar Garden (CSG). Community solar is becoming increasingly popular because it takes a lot of worry out of “going solar.” Subscribers don’t need a south-facing property or an adequate rooftop; they may even be renters. There is no worry about building permits, inspections, maintenance, or tax forms, and they can transfer their program membership to another address if they move, or withdraw from the program altogether. And there is a lot to be proud of, as each share in a community solar project is a long-term source of locally produced clean energy.

Last summer the GRPUC contracted with Cliburn and Associates, a widely respected solar consulting firm, to design a potential community solar program for their customers. They recently reviewed the consultant’s final program design recommendations and have decided to adopt them as criteria for a local CSG program. A key element of these criteria is the inclusion of energy storage as part of the project. Two large solar-charged batteries would run during periods of highest energy use city-wide, every month. That way, the utility could avoid the high cost of energy during those “peak hours,” and pass the savings along to the community at large. This approach is fairly new, but has been proven successful for a growing number of utilities.

Subscribers to this solar plus battery project would also be invited to sign up for GRPU’s existing load management programs, such as air conditioner cycling or electric water heater load control. Thanks to new electronic meters, the utility can send a signal to cycle this equipment during peak times in a way that will not affect customers’ comfort or convenience, yet could extend the peak load reduction value of the overall program. Other aspects of the program would promote energy efficiency, so that community solar can become the centerpiece of an updated customer-service plan.

The solar array and batteries would be located on about eight acres of city-owned land along Airport Road. (Federal regulations do not allow commercial or residential development on the site due to its proximity to one of the airport runways.) The site would be developed as a bee-friendly “pollinator garden”. Opportunities to work directly with schools would be explored, and the project would include an online portal, with easy-to-read, real-time information about the solar array’s performance. The planning team is also working with local partners to find ways to make solar power available to lower-income customers.

“Solar Plus” Offer
This proposed program is for homeowners and renters, young and old; supportive local government and school facilities; small businesses—and in short, any GRPU customers who choose to subscribe. Solar Plus is designed so it will be a good deal for participants, while not shifting costs onto utility ratepayers who choose not to participate. To help make clean solar power more affordable, this program is designed with a “pay as you go” pricing plan. This approach offers subscribers the chance to sign up for blocks of solar generation, delivered to the local grid from this project. Assuming the project moves forward, a rate per kilowatt-hour ($/kWh) to subscribe to the Solar Plus project would be finalized, once developer bids are reviewed. Cliburn and Associates’ economic analysis suggests that the new solar rate would add about one cent per kilowatt hour (kWh) on top of the applicable customer rate.
Sample Rate (Estimated)*
Current Estimated (Blended) GRPU Residential Electricity Rate: $0.096/kWh
New GRPUC Solar Plus Rate—Applies to Solar Portion of the Bill: $0.106/kWh
Solar Premium: 1¢ per kWh on Solar Portion of the Bill

* Note that subscribers will continue to pay GRPU service fees, taxes and the standard cost per kWh for electricity use that is not covered by their Solar Plus Share/s.

For subscription purposes, the Solar Plus rate would be expressed as participant Shares. For example, the solar generation from a 1-kilowatt Share of the project would be 130 kWh/month on average. If billed on the sample Solar Plus Rate, the first-year cost of this Share would be $1.30 more per month than the cost for standard electricity. Households wishing to solarize a greater percentage of their electric bill could simply subscribe to multiple Solar Plus Shares, resulting in greater total benefits in time. The average GRPU residential customer uses about 650 kWh of electricity per month. Converting all of that to renewable solar power would require 5 Solar Plus Shares, and the solar premium would be $6.50/month. Based on these numbers, each Solar Plus Share would provide about 20% of the average household’s electricity needs.

Community Benefits
The technologies and the financing agreement for this solar plus battery project would be long-term. However, community-wide savings begin to accrue in Year 1. While this program would offer a range of benefits specifically for subscribers, the majority of its local, clean energy benefits would be shared with GRPU ratepayers as a whole. Cliburn and Associates’ analysis shows that, over the 25-year life of the solar-plus-storage project, the utility could save much more on energy and peak-demand charges than the total project is expected to cost, with savings adding up year after year, to $4,000,000 or more.

For subscribers, the Solar Plus rate ($/kWh) would be slightly more expensive than standard electricity at first. But the Solar Plus rate will be fixed, while due to inflation and market pressures, the standard rate is likely to rise. Within 6 to 8 years, the Solar Plus rate is likely to be lower than the standard rate, and Solar Plus savings would begin to add up.

GRPU would review the program in Year 10, to ensure that ongoing costs are covered. Projections show that the program would provide savings for another 10 years or more. Thus, this program would help keep GRPUC financially strong—and more able to modernize service community-wide for years to come.

Next Steps & Approximate Timeline
January-February 2019: GRPU staff and Consultant prepare Request For Proposals (contract specifications) and bidder list
March 2019: GRPU Commission reviews RFP and affirms publishing it for bidding
April 2019: RFP responses due from bidders
May 2019: Finalists selected and interviewed
June 2019: Winning bidder selected; GRPUC affirms awarding contract
July 2019: Subscription marketing begins
August 2019: Construction begins
January 2020: Program start

This project is supported in part by a grant from the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP)

Solar plus battery storage comes to Minnesota

Adding battery storage to a solar array can save utilities and their rate payers significant amounts of money.  Here’s a link to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that explains how it works:

Sterling, MA is a town of about 7,000 people that installed a solar garden with battery storage early in 2017.  Check out the link below to see an excellent 9-minute video summarizing the project and the results.

Sterling’s Solar + Energy Storage System

GRPU hires consultant to design a CSG program for Grand Rapids!

This spring the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission decided to solicit bids from solar program experts to design a community solar program that was customized for our local situation.  In June they conducted interviews with each of the 5 respondents and they awarded the contract to Cliburn and Associates, a nationally known and respected solar consulting company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Jill Cliburn, the firm’s lead consultant, visited Grand Rapids on July 17th to research local conditions.  She spent the day meeting with Julie Kennedy (GRPU General Manager), Jeremy Goodell (Chief Electrician), and two members of the Itasca Clean Energy Team.  The day was pretty intense, as we needed to cram a lot of information exchange (in both directions) into a short amount of time.  Jill’s objective for the day was to learn as much as possible about our local situation as it relates to a potential community solar program.  She spent the first hour with Julie and Jeremy, learning about GRPU operations in general.  ICET members joined the group after that and we spent the next hour and a half discussing outreach that ICET and GRPU have done, which techniques have been most effective, and the current level of community awareness/interest in CSG.  We mentioned the customer survey conducted by GRPU in Oct. 2016 and the voting results on program design choices from the 70 attendees at the Nov. 2017 solar forum and she asked for that data.  She also asked Jeremy for data on the GRPU electric power load curve, both daily and monthly, and for wholesale power cost info from their contract with Minnesota Power.  We discussed the cost effectiveness of energy storage briefly, and she noted there are other ways than batteries to do storage.  She referenced the community solar program at the Steele-Waseca public utility in southern Minnesota, where subscribers for solar shares also get a water heater, which can be controlled by the utility to help manage peak loads.

We visited two city-owned potential sites for hosting a solar array:  the old substation site on the north side of the Mississippi River and just east of Veterans Park, and a larger site between Airport Road and Home Depot.  Jill favored the Airport Road site as it was large enough to accommodate a 1 megawatt array and still have room for expansion.  She did not rule out installing solar panels on rooftop sites, but noted that those would add complexity and cost to the project.   Final decisions on host site locations will be made later in the process.

Jill made the point that the current project does not have to incorporate all possible values of all community members–if we try to do that, we might get bogged down and the project could collapse.  She feels it’s important to get this project up and running, and then it can serve as a catalyst for other solar efforts in this area (e.g. making solar available to low and moderate income folks, constructing arrays at the schools, the hospital, etc.).

After lunch we discussed program administration, including subscription terms.  Options for defining solar shares include basing subscriptions on the capacity of a panel ($/kW), or on a standardized amount of energy ($/kWh).  Jill recommends standardizing subscription units in order to simplify billing and to reduce admin costs.  She cited Cedar Falls, Iowa as an example of a successful program that included utility financing, for up to 12 months, of up-front subscription costs.  Julie liked this idea, and noted that for marketing purposes it would be easier for people to understand if we talk about buying panels rather than kilowatts.  Jill will also be linking us up with solar program managers from the public utility in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Their community solar program is utilizing energy storage to reduce wholesale power demand charges.

One of the deliverables on this contract is a ballpark estimate of subscription pricing, which will be a key factor as marketing efforts begin later this fall.  Jill suggested defining shares in a way that would make them affordable if people want to purchase one or more as gifts to their church or other non-profit (Grace House, Keisler House, etc.)  She also recommended that we create a list of possible public entities or non-profits that might be willing to serve as “anchor” subscribers.

Approximately 25 community members attended an evening session at the Blandin Foundation to hear Jill’s first impressions of our local situation and to offer their perspectives on solar power.  Julie suggested that GRPU host another public event during Public Power Week in early October.  Jill’s work will be almost complete at that point, and the majority of her recommended solar program design components will be identified.

Things are getting exciting–stay tuned for further updates!