butter solar

Butter Solar: The model that made 2MW of solar possible in St. Charles, MN

Spreading the Word on
Butter Solar Portfolio

 

On Monday, October 7th, an inquisitive group gathered to learn more about the newly installed solar array in St. Charles, Minnesota.

This 2 MW project is part of the 'Butter Solar' Portfolio solar development, owned and operated by BluEarth Renewables US and totaling 23 MWAC across 10 communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. The event was hosted by Nick Koverman of the City of St. Charles along with project leads Eric Udelhofen of OneEnergy Renewables, Stanley Minnick of Organic Valley, and Chris Barnes of BluEarth Renewables.

 

As far as models go, there were several key takeaways:

  1. The ‘Butter Solar’ Portfolio projects are behind-the-meter, distributed solar projects designed to align with the minimum load of the host community utility. In the case of St. Charles, this meant a 2 MW project size. The behind-the-meter project helps St. Charles save on its transmission costs, which now make up 60% of its electric utility costs. St. Charles anticipates saving $31,000/year in transmission costs.
  2. The mix of partners in the project is really what made it work. The Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (UMMEG) and its participating members buy the power for the next 25 years. Four additional partners, Organic Valley; Dr. Bronner’s; the City of Madison, WI; and Native Energy, buy the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) associated with the power production for the next 25 years. The RECs do not make up a large share of the project value, but they helped make the economics work.
  3. The RECs allow these partners to claim the green attributes. For Organic Valley, capturing the RECs was essential to utilizing these projects to help meet their 100% renewable goal. These projects also ensure that they are meeting this target with new renewable energy projects and projects within their farmer network footprint thus providing additional local economic benefits.
  4. Having a champion is critical to making this sort of project work. In this case, Eric Udelhofen served as that champion, going to visit with each of the communities, their city councils and working to establish agreements for the land on which the solar would be sited, plus working with permitting officials on financing, etc. Distributed solar projects offer real value into the electric system by providing more grid stability and avoiding transmission costs. They also allow communities to more directly showcase leadership on clean energy. Yet all parties acknowledged that they require a good amount of coordination and someone needs to play the champion/coordination role.

Other Notable features

 
  1. The City of St. Charles has not had an electric utility rate increase since 2013. They are striving for the most reliable power at an affordable rate. This solar project fit the bill for those goals in part because they were able to acquire the power alongside twelve other municipal utilities as part of the Upper Midwest Energy Group (UMMEG), a project agency that works to explore larger project options through collaboration. It also worked for them as their only upfront costs were to purchase the land that now hosts the solar array (for which they will largely be repaid via a land lease with BluEarth) and for the new power line going into the project. They didn’t have to pay for the solar system itself; instead they are now buying the power through a power purchase agreement (PPA) that allows them to lock in a fixed rate for 25 years.
  2. Several of the solar panel systems in the Butter Solar portfolio are on trackers. There are a few trade-offs with trackers. On the pro-side: these systems are anticipated to produce 15-17% more energy, and these systems can more effectively dump snow. On the con-side, these systems take up a bit more space and trackers mean moving parts … which can break. 
  3. Combined, the sites total 140 acres of either pollinator or pasture habitat. The site in Cashton, MN even has grazing sheep (which are adorable!). The St. Charles solar site is adjacent to a residence, and they have adopted a screen/mat along the agricultural fencing that CERTs folks had not seen before. The household got to have input on what the screening would look like, and the city is also now working to plan evergreens along the property line to further screen the project. It sounded like very effective neighbor engagement.
     
 

Diversifying our alternative energy portfolio is simply good planning as we strive to meet and exceed our renewable mandate. But moreover, the partnership that was created allows St. Charles to receive the benefit of a long-term power purchase arrangement, which in turn helps to stabilize rates. In addition, St. Charles benefits because the power is generated in our backyard, which saves on the rising cost of transmission. The site also features pollinator-friendly plantings under and around the panels to reduce runoff, enhance soil health and stability, and provide a habitat and food source for pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife.

Nick Koverman, St. Charles City Administrator

Photos from the event:

Butter Solar in St. Charles

Downloads

Combined Speaker Slides (PDF)
Event Press Release (PDF)