Activists representing clean energy, religious and environmental organizations say a Minnesota utility’s proposed community solar garden program does little to encourage innovation and economic development.

Duluth-based Minnesota Power, part of the Allete Company, is currently pursuing a plan to build a 40 kilowatt garden in Duluth it will own. Solar developers have been invited to submit applications to build a one megawatt community solar garden at an undisclosed site in either Carleton or St. Louis counties. The community solar program is open to any Minnesota Power customer.

The ad-hoc group of 19 members (including members organizations of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News) held a press conference Thursday in Duluth and have submitted a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that outlines several issues they have with the program.

“We’d like Minnesota Power to follow the state statute on community solar so that they will have an open, transparent process,” said Natalie Cook, a Sierra Club North Star chapter organizer. “We would like the company to see community solar as a community resource, not a corporate service.”

Minnesota’s community solar law of 2013 did not cover Minnesota Power, so the utility is under no statutory obligation to create solar gardens. However, Cook and critics feel the company’s approach is too confining and does not allow for developers to offer community solar outside of two proposed projects.

Minnesota Power, for example, for now plans only to build community solar in St. Louis and Carleton counties. That forced Jason Edens, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), to change plans about a project he was developing for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The reservation receives power from several different companies. Edens planned a 200 kW project to serve low-income residents living in Minnesota Power’s territory on the reservation and had spoken to utility officials about it.

While they seemed supportive, the program’s geographical limitations means he will have to relocate the proposal to another part of reservation after securing the interest of one of the tribe’s four other power providers.

Minnesota Power’s decision to limit the community solar program’s geography “is very disheartening and disappointing,” Edens said.

The group’s letter to the PUC asks the utility to lower the amount of capacity subscribers must purchase to 200 watts in an effort to attract low-income customers.

The group also says the playing field for community solar should be open to all developers, not just one of two. They say subscribers will not be compensated for renewable energy credits (RECs), which they are by community solar developers in Xcel’s program.

They want economic value offered subscribers tied to the retail electricity rate or the “Value of Solar Tariff” established by the PUC. Moreover, they want community solar members to be able to keep subscriptions if they move and to have a rate structure that recognizes the benefits of distributed generation.

In a statement, Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power’s spokeswoman, said the company is “excited about our community solar garden — it is a Minnesota Power customer-focused program that will provide a new renewable energy choice that offers optionality, flexibility, accessibility and competitive pricing.”

She emphasized community solar will be a “pilot program” that will determine market demand for the product. If the program succeeds, she said, more of them will be built.

“More than 150 customers have signed our ‘interest list’ which we believe is a great response so far,” Rutledge said.

Cook believes Minnesota Power should simply follow the state statute, even if it doesn’t have to.

“I think our group hopes for a community solar program for the Northland that supports economic growth, equity and renewable energy,” she said.

(Editor’s note: The story has been changed to note that any customer of Minnesota Power will be eligible to subscribe to the solar garden program.)

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.