Go Solar

Community Solar Gardens

Go Solar Without Installing Panels

Community Solar Gardens are centrally-located solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that provide electricity to participating subscribers. Community solar gardens are for people that want to go solar but are unable to do so on their own. 

Perhaps you live in an apartment, have a shaded roof at home, or don’t have space at your organization. Now you can subscribe to a community solar garden installed near you and get credits on your utility bill.

How Does It Work?

 

Three Simple Steps:

  1. Solar is Installed
    Solar PV panels are installed in sunny locations to produce renewable electricity.
  2. You Subscribe
    Individual entities can subscribe to enough solar to cover up to 120% of their annual electricity usage.
  3. You're Credited on Your Utility Bill
    Each subscriber's utility bill is credited with the electricity created by their share of the solar garden.

 

 

Who's Eligible?

Xcel Energy customers can participate in projects offered by private developers. Members of other utilities in Minnesota can subscribe to a community solar garden if one is offered by the utility. See all programs in Minnesota.

How Much Solar Should I Get?

The amount of electricity you use helps you decide how much solar to get. In Xcel Energy territory your solar garden subscription can cover up to 120% of your annual electricity usage. A typical Minnesota home uses 800 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a month. In other utility territories maximum subscription amounts will vary. Remember: energy efficiency is always a good place to start!

Newsletter

Get The Latest on Renewable Energy in MN

Calculator Spreadsheets

Financial impact of a subscription
Compare solar garden proposals

Looking for some background?

You can download a narrative about the single offer calculator. We have a handy blog post and webinar that talks about how to use the multiple offer tool.

Credits:

  • The single offer tool was created by Douglas Tiffany, a Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota.
  • The multiple offer tool was created by Trevor Drake, program staff at the Great Plains Institute.

Community Solar could actually be a number of things. It could be a community-owned solar installation, like at your local community center. It could be a publicly-located project funded through donations from community members. It could also be a bulk purchase of solar.

Community Shared Solar or Community Solar Gardens (which are the same thing) specifically refer to projects “whereby subscribers (at least 5) receive a bill credit for the electricity generated in proposition to the size of their subscription.”

Think of a community garden with solar. With a community garden, a bunch of neighbors come together at one central location to garden rather than having their own gardens in their own yards. There is centralized water and a sense of gardening camaraderie. You might also compare it to a CSA, where several members come together to support one farm and all benefit with fresh produce. Participants in a Community Solar Garden have their own share of a centrally-located project and receive a direct benefit: solar energy.

There are different Community Solar Garden models. Some are up-front subscription models wherein the subscriber would do a lump sum up-front payment. Others are a “pay as you go” model wherein a subscriber pays a monthly (or other periodic) fee. There are also emerging models that combine both of these elements and have subscribers put some money down up front and pay some component of the costs over time.

You might wonder if you own your share of a project or if you’re just leasing it when you subscribe. If you subscribe to a community solar garden, it means you are renting from the facility owner a portion of the solar energy it produces (Minn. Stat. § 216b.1641 subd. h and Minn. Stat. § 216B.164, subd. 10k).

A participant can buy as little as 200 watts of solar or enough to cover up to 120% of their annual electricity usage in Xcel Energy territory. Just for perspective, the typical MN home uses about 800 kWh each month—or 9,600 kWh/ year. To fulfill all of that need might take about 8 kW of solar (assuming each 1 kW panel would general 1,200 kWh per year if it had around a 14% capacity factor). In non-Xcel Energy territory, you would need to work directly with your utility to understand how small or large your subscription can be.

We always recommend that people consider energy conservation and efficiency measures to reduce their energy needs.

The short answer is, it depends. Each developer will have their own subscription prices, and each subscriber will have an amount of their electricity that they’re willing or able to cover with solar.

If you start using more energy, you will likely have an opportunity to subscribe to more panels to cover that usage.

However, solar has been seen as a catalyst for folks to use less energy, because they start to focus on ways they can save energy to make their solar go further. Hopefully participation in community-solar will also serve that function.

If you move within the same county or to an adjacent county where your electric utility provider is still the same, you can still be a part of the same solar garden.

If, however, you move to a different utility territory, to a non-adjacent county, or to a different state, you could no longer participate in the same solar garden. Your options would be to (a) sell your subscription back at fair market value, (b) donate it to a nonprofit, or © transfer it to another family member.

Your solar garden operator keeps track of subscriptions and will handle the customer care role of processing any necessary changes.

The great opportunity with community solar gardens is that anyone, or any group, can come together to kick-start a project. A congregation, a local government, a school, a community group or any group of customers can come together to develop a community solar garden.

Many utilities have existing programs. Potential participants in other territories will need to work with their local utilities to move a project forward.

Once a project is available, participants can sign on if they are a member/customer of a utility and located in the same county where a project is located, or the adjacent county. In plain English, that means you can subscribe to a project in Xcel Energy territory located in Hennepin County as long as you are an Xcel Energy Customer and live in either Hennepin County or any of its surrounding counties (i.e., Ramsey, Dakota, Scott, Carver, Wright, Sherburne, or Anoka).

Again, if there isn’t a project close to you, then you can serve as the catalyst to kick start one.

As a subscriber to a community solar garden project, whether or not you will save money really depends upon which utility territory you are in. Many of the Cooperative utility community solar garden programs are geared toward allowing customers to lock in a specific electric rate. If rates go up, subscribers will save money over time. In Xcel Energy territory, current models from developers are typically structured to allow subscribers to start saving energy right away. Whether you will continue to save over time and how much you will save over time depends in part upon the subscription model and what happens with utility rates.

Well, not exactly. As a subscriber to a garden that sells the solar Renewable Energy Credits (sRECs) to the utility, you can claim that you are participating in a community solar garden project, but if the Utility has purchased the sRECs, they have purchased those solar energy attributes. Learn more in this handy one-pager.

The credit to your bill is not taxable. Whether or not the annual account settlement (which is the payment the utility would make via a check at the end of the year long period as a “bill true-up”) is taxable is still pending an IRS consideration. Subscribers should consult their own accountant/attorney.

The Developer is not regulated by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, so it is important to choose your solar developer wisely. The Developer is the person or group that pulls all the various components of the project together. These are the folks who would manage the financing, the insurance, the installation, the operations and maintenance and the agreements with the utility. We never recommend one entity over another, but we pose questions a group or individual ought to ask of a potential developer:

  • Do they have staying power to be around for the next 25 years? What is their background, and do they have the right experience?
  • Who will be the entity to conduct the maintenance on the system? Has the contractor or developer set aside enough money to do on-going work?
  • Have they secured the insurance for the project and covered all of their legal bases to move a project forward?
  • Is this developer willing to listen to your interests and motivations and use those to tailor the project?

You want to make sure you’re really a good host site in terms of solar resource. What does that mean? It means south facing, no shading, a solid roof structure, ready access to the site, and a strong utility interconnection potential (i.e., close to a substation or other existing electrical infrastructure in the right utility territory).

You also need to make sure you’re in it for the long haul. If you want to lease your roof space to a project, you’ll need to do that for 25 years at minimum, and be an entity that will be around for 25 years to stick to the agreement.

Others could also play host, like a closed landfill, or a brownfield. Ideally you do not want to take up “green space” or prime agricultural land that could have a higher value used elsewhere.

Another consideration to keep in mind: a 1 MW project can require an area with either 3-8 acres of land or 100,000 sq feet of roof space (ideally a new roof).

Host Site Agreements

If you’re considering becoming a host site, the guide to lease agreements below will be a helpful start, and the model agreements for rooftop and land leases will help you dig into the details.

Yes. If the host site is also a subscriber, then it could use some of the energy generated on its own site.

While the subscribers pay for a lot of the up-front costs of a project, there are additional investors who will be involved in the project because they have a tax appetite to benefit from the federal Investment Tax Credit (which will make any project more affordable). These folks are important because most of us don’t really have the ability to take advantage of these tax credits. If you have questions about the tax implications of participating in a project, you should seek professional tax advice.

The utility’s role in providing and charging for electricity for the subscriber’s use will remain the same. In the Xcel Energy program, in addition to that existing role, the utility will also be the entity that receives the solar electricity from the operator and then credits your bill for the solar electricity your share of the garden produced. In non-Xcel Energy territory, utilities themselves run the community solar garden programs and through those programs offer an additional service/energy resource to their members/customers through this subscription model.

A site assessor is critical to making sure the project is developed at the best possible host site… see above: one with a good solar resource and will a solid site for the installation.

This is a fairly straightforward role. Outreach Partners secure participants to help fill a project and make it a success. This role is critical in terms of making sure folks know about the opportunity, understand their options, and sign on to participate. Outreach can be done in a paid or unpaid capacity.

One-Sheets About Community Solar

Intro to community solar
Intro to Community Solar Gardens
tip sheet
Solar Garden Subscriber Tips
Cover of Questions Brochure
Questions Subscribers Can Ask of Operators
Checklist
Subscriber Agreement Disclosure Checklist