Since buying a home in Eden Prairie five years ago, Trish Wanik has been researching ways to reduce her energy use. When she saw a social media post inviting residents to consider subscribing to a community solar garden that the City of Eden Prairie was building, “it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for,” she said.
Solar panels for the project are being installed atop the Eden Prairie Community Center, but the long-awaited community solar garden being built there is still about seven months from being operational.
When the project is done, about 150 Eden Prairie households known as subscribers or members, including Wanik, will see lower electrical bills and play a part in the push for more renewable energy.
Supply chain issues, the threat of tariffs on solar panel imports, equipment price volatility, and even COVID-19 have combined to delay the Eden Prairie solar garden. The city began talking with its partner on the project, Minneapolis-based Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), in 2018 and CEF says the solar garden should be operational next April, making this a project of nearly six years.
“Everything went a bit slower than we might have anticipated,” said Jennifer Fierce, the City of Eden Prairie’s sustainability coordinator.
Dan Grantier, CEF’s solar development manager, called the delays frustrating. Not only because it slows the cooperative’s work to advance clean energy, but also because CEF has frequently had to share bad news with its project partners, including the City of Eden Prairie.
“We are really feeling encouraged now that the crews are on the roof and really making great progress,” Grantier noted by email this week. “When they are done, it will be back to the waiting game until the big electrical gear shows up.”
What is community solar?
Community solar, as defined by the State of Minnesota, allows groups of consumers to purchase “subscriptions” to a central solar facility and receive credit on their electric bills for the energy it produces. It serves as an alternative to the more common practice of putting solar panels on one’s house.
In a project like Eden Prairie’s, residents each subscribe to a portion of the project. They continue to purchase their electricity from their utility – in this case, Xcel Energy, which will receive the energy from Eden Prairie’s solar garden – but receive a credit on their utility bills for the energy that is produced by their portion of the rooftop facility.
Eden Prairie city officials began talking to CEF about building a solar garden on the huge roof of the Community Center after seeing similar CEF projects at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie and in the city of Edina. An agreement with CEF to lease the rooftop and build and operate the solar garden was struck in 2019. No upfront investment by the city was required, Fierce said. CEF finances its projects with help from tax equity investors, traditional lenders, and a portion of the subscription fees, according to Grantier.
The large size of the Eden Prairie Community Center’s roof seemed ideal, able to accommodate a project expected to produce 1 megawatt of electricity, which was the state cap when the project started.
“It was really the perfect site for it, and it’s already a community center, so it makes sense to have it be community solar, too,” said Fierce.
When the project is complete, the roof will hold 1,989 solar panels or modules, manufactured in Cambodia, that are 545 watts each for a total garden size of 1,084 kilowatts, or a little over one megawatt, according to Grantier.
He said the energy produced from a solar array like this goes through a “production meter” that records all of the energy generated. Then the energy goes on to the grid and mixes with all of the other energy being produced. So, a resident participant subscribes to a certain percentage of the array, maybe 1% of the 1,989 modules. They are credited 1% of the total energy production for a given period on their bill. It’s a process that Grantier says is called “virtual net-metering.”
Fierce said the city knew, based on other projects, that there would be pretty strong interest in the limited number of subscriptions to the solar garden, so it set aside 25% of the capacity for Eden Prairie residents of low or moderate incomes, renters or immigrant groups that don’t traditionally get to participate in solar programs.
The subscriptions not based on those guidelines are sold out, but a few subscriptions for the qualified “carve-out,” as it’s being called, remain. CEF is handling the subscriptions, explaining to interested applicants how the solar garden works and what savings might be realized. It’s a 25-year commitment for subscribers.
Depending on the household and usage, there’s something in the neighborhood of 10% to 15% cost savings that is the difference between your Xcel Energy bill credits and what you pay for your solar garden subscription, according to Fierce.
Supply chain issues and more
But building the project hasn’t been easy.
Fierce joined the city in 2020, about the time that the program was being pitched to residents, with community meetings planned to explain the solar garden concept and begin taking subscriptions.
“The summer of 2020 maybe wasn’t the best time,” because of COVID, she said. “That took some extra time” and required some online effort.
COVID impacted the supply chain, too, slowing the delivery of equipment needed to build the solar garden. Talk of solar panel tariffs also created uncertainty and delay, as did rapidly changing prices.
It’s simply taking a long time to get electrical equipment, says Grantier. Which helps explain why, even though the installation of solar panels will be completed in August, delivery of the big transformers and switchgear needed to connect with the electrical grid is delayed, meaning CEF will not be able to operate the solar garden until probably April 2024.
Overall, “it’s been a process,” Fierce says in an understated way.
Like Trish Wanik, subscriber and Eden Prairie homeowner Nick Pocock remains enthusiastic.
“Impatient is probably the way I’d describe myself right now,” said Pocock, who signed up in 2021 and expects to save about $50 a month on electricity costs. “The delays are frustrating, but it appears it’s pretty common in this renewable energy area right now.”
“I would certainly prefer the project be done sooner than later,” added Wanik. “But it’s more important that it gets done right.”
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