A 2013 discussion about Minnesota community solar at the Saint Paul Science Museum. Credit: Fresh Energy

Xcel Energy has reached an agreement with several developers that proposes to limit the size of co-located community solar gardens to 5 MW or less. Submitted Monday to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the proposal allows solar farms substantially larger than the utility’s original proposal to limit such installations to 1 MW or less. The commission will decide Thursday what, if any, limitations it will impose on co-located community gardens.

The agreement between Xcel and the developers, if implemented, would still allow Minnesota to have one of the nation’s largest solar garden programs, according to Laura McCarten, regional vice president for Xcel. Any proposed projects more than 5 MW would be scaled down to the 5 MW cap, she said.

Xcel met with developers over the past few months to reach an agreement to bring to the commission.

“This sets the right balance for our customers, who will pay the higher costs of the program, and the developers, who could officially go forward to develop certain projects,” McCarten said.

Even with the 5 MW limitation, the Minnesota community solar program would generate several hundred megawatts of energy, she said. The agreement would “move the program forward” and “result in a successful long-term program.”

The parties in the agreement include Innovative Power Systems, Minnesota Community Solar LLC, Novel Energy Solutions, Renewable Energy Partners, SolarStone Partners LLC and TruNorth Solar LLC.

The list does not include some of the larger community solar firms such as Sunshare, SunEdison and many others that have submitted proposals. The commission will decide Thursday what, if any, limitations it will impose on co-located community gardens.

Xcel’s concern has been over the sheer size of the program and the premium it would pay to purchase power generated by community solar. As of Tuesday, 914 MW of community solar has been submitted in Minnesota, McCarten said.

Developers had initially said that the 1 MW limitation would “decimate” the state’s community solar program and that it went against state regulators’ interpretation of the program.

The project list consists of 15 projects between 10 and 20 MW, three between 20 and 30 MW and two with a 30 to 50 MW range. Approving all, or many, of them would be costly.

“We were estimating it would cost $2 billion over the lifetime of the program,” McCarten said.

Under the agreement, the 5 MW limit would last until Sept. 25. Then, the cap would drop to 1 MW for a period of one year to allow time for the commission to once again study co-location limitations, McCarten said.

Under the state’s community solar legislation, gardens can be no larger than 1 MW. However, developers have proposed co-locating several — sometimes dozens — of 1 MW gardens at sites with good connections to the Xcel electric grid.

The “partial settlement agreement,” as the document is called, does not change the price Xcel will pay developers for community solar power and offers changes to allow for “greater transparency and expediency” in the interconnection process, according to a letter accompanying the agreement.

Xcel plans “massive investment” in utility-scale solar, said McCarten, with plans for more than 2,000 MW in addition to substantial wind investments.

“We have a great course charted for the state and community solar gardens will play an important role in that as well,” McCarten said. “We support community solar gardens, we want them to be successful and we want them to work for all our customers.”

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.