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 – Art Norton

Art Norton lives with his wife Karen Noyce on a rural homestead, 16 miles east of Grand Rapids. They have lived off the grid for 38 years, putting up their first 105 watt photovoltaic system on a cabin in 1982 (Those first panels cost $1,050 dollars; the same panels today cost less than $100).  Sheep farming has come and gone, as have two children, but the solar system has stayed and still gives them cheap and reliable power.

Art was trained in geology and limnology.  His first professional job was in Wyoming, mapping coal deposits, but most of his career has been in northern Minnesota.   Art worked from 1990 to 2005 as the Itasca County Soil and Water Conservation District manager, and the Itasca County Water Plan Coordinator.  In 2005, Art joined the Nature Conservancy as the field representative for the Minnesota Forest Legacy Project. Following retirement in 2012, Art has turned his attention to managing the 70 acre woodlot and homestead (including the photovoltaic system), spending time with his granddaughter, and learning about the potential of community solar.

“I am really excited about the possibility of a community solar garden in Grand Rapids.   Think of it – locally produced energy at an affordable price, likely even cheaper than coal.  And there are the added benefits that direct energy from the sun provides – the “fuel” is free, and the healthiest and most sustainable source of energy around!”

– Art Norton, November, 2018


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!

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)

Team Profile – Bill Schnell

My name is Bill Schnell.  I grew up on the plains of southwestern Minnesota, but fell in love with the north woods as a teenager.  That led to a 35-year career as a forester. I’ve been a resident of Itasca County since 1981, and a resident of Grand Rapids since 2013.  My wife Mary and I raised our two daughters here, and we are grateful to call this community our home. After I retired, I began looking for ways to give something back to this place that I love.

I got involved with the Itasca Clean Energy Team because I had studied the scientific evidence about our changing climate and I wanted to be part of taking action locally to promote renewable energy sources.  (If you are interested in the science behind the climate change discussion, I recommend “Storms of My Grandchildren”, by Dr. James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.) We are all stewards of this beautiful planet, and one measure our performance in that role is whether or not our actions are sustainable.  I want to do my part to ensure that my children and grandchildren can enjoy the stable climate that I have taken for granted my entire life.

I am excited about positioning our community as a leader in the jobs and technology of the future.  A cost-effective community solar-plus-battery-storage program in Grand Rapids would be an example that other cities could emulate around the region, the state, and beyond.  I look forward to exploring opportunities for curriculum development for students in I.S.D. 318 and ICC!

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.