A Colorado-based solar company has begun an ambitious plan this week to enroll 5,000 Minnesota homeowners by December in its community solar garden program.

Among the first entities to help Sunshare reach that goal is Starbuck, a small town of 1,300 that gained notoriety in the 1970s when farmers and town residents fought a transmission project with the help of then college professor Paul Wellstone, who later became a legendary United States senator.

Ken Bradley, director of business development in Sunshare’s Minneapolis office, said Starbuck was “the place of America’s first energy war,” a struggle so intense that state officials called out the National Guard to bring calm.

“With community solar, we’re delivering to them what they wanted 30 years ago,” Bradley said. He’s recommended Wellstone’s book, Powerline: The First Battle Of America’s Energy War, to staffers too young to recall the bitter struggle.

“We thought, wow, wouldn’t it be cool to have a solar garden in Starbuck?” Bradley said.

The community will host a 7 MW Sunshare solar garden, Bradley noted, with another 3 MW installation planned for nearby Stearns County.

With much of the news in community solar focused on large companies and institutions signing contracts to offset their energy use, Sunshare’s residential push intentionally seeks to reach a wider audience, he said.

Part of the “legislative intent” of community solar was to reach consumers who could not put solar on their roofs due any number of issues, among them cost, Bradley said. “We’re selling to cities, businesses and residents,” he said. “We have an amazing staff working on the residential side.”

As Bradley noted, Sunshare also has been busy on the commercial side of the business, having recently announced that Carver County community of Cologne (pop. 1,500) would offset 100 percent of its municipal power needs with community solar.

A total of 2,700 panels will be used by Sunshare to offset Cologne’s energy consumption.

One of the biggest issues with solar promotion has been customer acquisition, Bradley said, and Sunshare’s strategy — mirroring other companies — is to partner with nonprofit organizations.

The first to sign on is the nonprofit Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, Bradley said. But he’s received a lot of calls from interested parties, especially in outstate Minnesota, who simply want to participate in the solar energy industry and have not been contacted by anybody representing Sunshare.

The early results of a two-week outreach campaign in spring in Minnesota brought interest from hundreds of homeowners, added David Amster-Olszewski, CEO of the Denver-based company.

Sunshare plans to offer subscriptions to homeowners that would offset 100 percent of their energy use, he said. Homeowners would have to the option of paying for their panels upfront, Amster-Olszewski said, but few take that path, with most preferring instead the subscription plan.

The biggest challenge for Sunshare and other community solar companies will be “educating the community,” he said. “Most people just don’t know this is available — and that it’s not just a product, it’s a movement. Like any movement, educating people is the key to success. Most people don’t know they can choose solar energy and not pay anything more for it on their electric bill.”

Amster-Olszewski pointed out that developers can only sell power to residents of the county in which the solar garden is located and to bordering counties. The company has various installations around the metro region in order to meet that demand, he said.

Under the state’s community solar legislation, passed in 2013, homeowners in Xcel Energy’s territory can offset up to 120 percent of their energy consumption. The utility will credit homeowners on their monthly bills with the amount of energy their solar panels produced.

If homeowners purchase around 20 panels they could offset their entire electricity usage for an average size home, according to a Sunshare press release.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will decide next week whether Xcel can contain the co-location of multiple 1 MW solar gardens at different sites. Many developers, including Sunshare, have proposed multiple 1 MW gardens at a single site.

Sunshare has “carefully” scaled the Minnesota projects so that even if the PUC imposes some size limitations the company will be able to serve all customers — and many more — who have signed up, he said.

The company has proposed more than 100 MW of community solar in Minnesota. In Colorado Sunshare is the largest community solar provider, with 11.5 MW currently operational and another 30 MW under development.

The company recently held an event in Colorado Springs to promote residential community solar. “We had an event there last week and 85 percent of the households who attended the event signed contracts right there,” Amster-Olszewski  said. “It’s pretty high adopting once people understand the product and how it benefits them.”

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.