For everyday Minnesotans, getting into solar energy is about to get easier

Most solar energy is now used by large businesses that can afford the upfront costs.

Most solar energy is now used by large businesses that can afford the upfront costs. CleanChoice Energy

Renewable energy -- like hydroelectric, wind and solar power -- recently dethroned nuclear power as Minnesota’s second-largest source of electricity after coal. On top of that, the state’s overall solar capacity has pretty much tripled since last year. 

Still, solar capacity remains at less than half the production of Minnesota’s largest coal-fired power plant, Sherburne County Generating Station. And it's mostly being employed by large businesses, which can afford the upfront costs of installation and reap the benefits of Minnesota’s incentives.

It’s not easy for most homeowners to throw a solar panel onto their roof -- or for renters to convince their landlords to do it.

Community solar is hoping to offer an alternative. Essentially, solar farms partner with energy companies (your Xcels and whatnot) to let customers take advantage of renewable energy without having to install a panel of their own.

Here’s how it works: Customers sign up to get a portion of the farm based on their past energy usage. The farm generates energy for Xcel. The customer gets two bills -- one from Xcel and one from the solar garden -- but Xcel gives them enough of a discount for pitching in on the solar garden that the total energy cost usually ends up being the same as, or even less than, what it would be without the solar farm. Meanwhile, the customer gets to support renewable energy.

The problem is that you have to live in or close to the county where the solar farm is located in order to be eligible, and there just aren’t that many. But there are going to be a lot more.

CleanChoice Energy and Cypress Choice Renewals just announced they were adding 42 megawatts of community solar, accessible in over 35 Minnesota counties, which will increase the capacity for community solar by about 10 percent. They’re specifically saving thousands of those spots just for residents.

“If it sounds like we’re pretty excited, we’re pretty excited,” managing director Laura Pagliarulo says. If all goes well, the number of residential community customers could increase by 50 percent and offset 20,000 tons of carbon pollution each year.

The solar market isn’t exactly a cornucopia right now. There’s way more interest than there is availability or practical usage. CleanChoice spokesperson Kate Colarulli says the farms will probably sell out in the next few months.

“We’ve gotten contact from hundreds of interested customers,” she says.

It’s a sign that the market is making room for more regular people. And probably not a moment too soon. By 2025, the state hopes to have emission levels 30 percent lower than in 2005. If this is going to work, it has to be possible for people to buy in.