Community solar garden

Submitted photo

The Itasca Clean Energy Team was so excited by the approval of the Community Solar Garden they couldn't wait to get out to the site and start working. Pictured are Nick Eltgroth, Art Norton, Bill Schnell, Vicki Andrews and Ross Williams.  Not pictured: Simon Gretton and Harry Hutchins.

The Grand Rapids Public Utilities (GRPU) Commission voted unanimously at their Nov. 18 meeting to authorize Minnesota Power to sign a contract with US Solar, a nationally known solar developer, to build a solar garden and battery storage system in Grand Rapids. Minnesota Power will pass the solar power through to GRPU and its customers. This is the first solar-plus-storage system of its type to be built in northern Minnesota. The Itasca Clean Energy Team (ICET), a local citizens group promoting renewable energy, enthusiastically endorsed this action.

History

According to ICET, the idea for the solar garden was introduced at a community forum promoting renewable energy, that was sponsored by the Sierra Club. A group of residents decided this would be a great way to make solar power available to a wide number of people in Grand Rapids. Their original goal was to build a local 1 Megawatt Community Solar Garden, which would generate enough energy annually to supply all of the electricity needed for over 300 average-sized homes. The plan was that interested community members would sign up to buy the solar power it generated, and help Grand Rapids become a part of the solar revolution.

ICET spent the next couple of years engaging the community and working with GRPU Commissioners and staff to design a solar garden project that incorporated supporters' input and was right for this community. Along the way they received help from a wide variety of local and state-wide organizations including the Blandin Foundation, the Clean Energy Resource Teams, and the University of Minnesota's Rural Sustainable Development Program. Most importantly, they won the support of a large number of people in the community.

Economic Benefits of Adding Battery Storage

In 2018, that community support led the GRPU to hire Cliburn and Associates, a nationally known and respected solar consulting firm, to help us develop specifications for a solar garden tailored to our local needs. Cliburn's analysis included evaluating how best to maximize the economic benefits of the project to GRPU and its customers, and results showed that adding energy-storage capability (via a bank of lithium-ion batteries) would add significant value. Cliburn’s report showed how GRPU and its customers could lower their costs by using the solar power stored in the batteries at the times when the price of energy from the regional grid is highest.

GRPU Expands Community Garden to Benefit All Ratepayers

ICET's original vision for a community solar garden relied on long term economic benefits that would attract subscribers who were willing and able to pay a little extra for their electricity now, in exchange for long term savings. Using Cliburn’s analysis, GRPU concluded that building a solar garden with battery storage would lower electricity costs for all ratepayers, while avoiding the administrative costs of managing a subscription program. By the end of 2018 GRPU had decided to seek bids from solar developers across the country to build a solar plus storage system here in Grand Rapids. Minnesota Power had been following GRPU’s exploration of solar power and decided to become involved in the contracting process, since they have a long relationship with GRPU as it’s wholesale power supplier.

Throughout 2019 the Itasca Clean Energy Team was actively involved with that process, helping GRPU and MP to develop the terms of the bid package. The team helped to screen the pool of solar developers who submitted bids, and to evaluate the bids that were received. GRPU and Minnesota Power entered into direct negotiations with the final three candidate firms to fine tune their bids. Ultimately they selected US Solar, an experienced firm based in Minneapolis, as the project developer. Their proposal included commitments to use local labor and suppliers whenever feasible, including using solar panels produced on the Iron Range.

Size of Project has Doubled

The project has evolved, and is no longer a "Community Solar Garden" in the traditional sense. Because the system as a whole will save GRPU money year over year, subscriptions are not necessary. All GRPU customers will automatically share in the benefits of locally produced solar power, including lower costs. To maximize those benefits the size of the planned solar array has been expanded to 2 Megawatts in capacity, double what ICET had originally proposed. The system will provide approximately 8 percent of GRPU's total annual energy needs.

The system will be built on about 15 acres of City-owned land just east of Home Depot. The site grading contract was recently awarded to Casper Construction, with work expected to finish before freeze-up this winter. Installation of the solar array and battery storage system will start next spring, and energy production is expected to “go live” by November, 2021. Except for the access roads, the site will be seeded to pollinator-friendly ground cover.

According to ICET leader Bill Schnell, “This is a great first step toward a clean energy future for this area. Almost 5 years ago we started promoting a community solar garden here in Grand Rapids, to provide the opportunity for subscribers to enjoy solar power without the hassle of installing their own system. We ended up with something better: the benefits of solar power for every GRPU customer, including lower electric rates. We are extremely grateful for the support of the GRPU Commission and especially for the hard work and persistence of GRPU General Manager Julie Kennedy and Electric Distribution Manager Jeremy Goodell.”

Jeremy Goodell, GRPU Electric Department Manager, said, “After several years of working with the Itasca Clean Energy Team and Minnesota Power, we are looking forward to bringing the first solar storage project to our region. By pairing a utility sized battery with a large-scale solar system, we will be able to store energy generated from the solar panels and use it during times when electrical power demand is higher. We would like to thank our partners in helping bringing this project to fruition and look forward to working with them over the next 25 years.”

The project represents an investment of more than $6 million and is expected to support more than 25 construction jobs.

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