Wizards of Waverly place big bet on solar power

Climate scientists are confident Minnesota will one day have weather like this again.

Climate scientists are confident Minnesota will one day have weather like this again.

Small-town Minnesota is buying into solar power in a big way. 

The town of Waverly, population 1,400, is expected to flip the switch on a community solar garden project later this year, giving individual and commercial consumers a little more peace of mind about their energy usage and some nice monthly credits off their bill. 

Also going big for Waverly's solar garden project is Waverly itself. The city located around 40 miles west of Minneapolis expects to get 100 percent of its energy from the solar garden. Energy from the sun will change street lights from red to green, keep the sewer pumps running, and turn on a lamp in the mayor's office. 

That feature is one reason why Connie Holmes, Waverly mayor, was so pleased with the pitch from SunShare, a Colorado-based company that approached the city in early 2015. SunShare pointed to a roughly 50-acre plot of land that its developers thought would make a good site for solar gardens. Aside from some city zoning approvals, SunShare asked very little of Waverly.

"The full extent of our financial commitment was printing the public notice saying there would be a [city council] hearing," Holmes says. "And that is not much."

Waverly signed a 25-year contract to get its municipal energy needs met by the solar project, and Holmes estimates it will save about $400,000 over that time. Other consumers in town took to the idea, too: The garden "plots" quickly sold out, with 80 percent of the subscriptions snatched up by individuals, and the remainder going to the city and commercial businesses. 

The only drawback with Waverly's new energy producer is his refusal to work nighttime hours.

The only drawback with Waverly's new energy producer is his refusal to work nighttime hours.

Some time toward the tail end of this year, those people and offices will start getting their first revised energy bills. If the amount of sun-power generated is less than that customer's usage, the bill is due, as normal, though with a little less guilt about ruining the planet. If the solar figure exceeds usage, the overage becomes a credit, which is subtracted from future bills. SunShare estimates that for most homes, 20 solar panels would produce enough to cover the whole monthly bill. 

Naturally, the solar amount will vary with how much sunshine Waverly got that month; as always, clouds are the enemy of progress.

SunShare has garden agreements in place with six Minnesota communities, including Starbuck, Jordan, and Cologne, which, last year, became the first town in the state with designs on getting all of its power from solar. 

Xcel Energy has no choice but to get involved in solar projects, with a state-mandated requirement of 30 percent of all energy from the utility giant coming from renewable sources by 2020. Wind projects make up the vast majority of that plan — maybe you should stop cursing the wind, huh? — but the state's embrace of solar gardens makes it a national leader in that burgeoning little movement. 

When Connie Holmes talks about bringing solar to Waverly, she doesn't go on about saving the planet or feeling good about herself. Before moving to Waverly, Holmes was a statistical analyst for the National Mining Association in Washington, D.C., eventually rising to become a senior vice president with that organization. She thinks, and talks, in numbers.

"We're going to save money," Holmes says. "Just, period. Our city, our residents. We're going to save money."