Back in October, I posted the article, “A Community Solar Program That Works For Duluth and Beyond“. The article highlighted efforts in Duluth to incorporate more renewable resources into our energy grid and expressed community excitement about the development of our first community solar garden. I also underscored the need to ask for modifications to Minnesota Power’s (MP) proposed Community Solar Pilot Program, which is currently being reviewed by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Since then, five months have passed with multiple requests from many citizens and organizations, for MP to modify their current proposal. This month, I’ve decided to revisit this issue in more detail because as of now, MP has not indicated any willingness to fashion a community solar program that reflects real benefits to our community and ratepayers, and that doesn’t restrict future expansion of community solar in Duluth.
Duluth is working toward a healthier, more sustainable energy future. Just this week, Mayor Emily Larson rolled out the City of Duluth’s Municipal Energy Plan by announcing an initial investment of $500,000 in energy efficiency and conservation initiatives. This is a clear signal that Duluth is taking its energy future seriously, which supports the results produced by Conservation Minnesota’s Duluth Energy Survey. You can see the full survey results here, but in short, here are some key points:
- Duluth residents were very interested in this survey. In total, 1,774 people completedthe survey out of the 16,000 who were surveyed. This is a response rate of over 10%, which is more than five times higher than a typical direct mail response rate.
- Respondents strongly support past community actions aimed at promoting energy conservationand use of renewable energy.
- Respondents are strongly supportive of the city taking more steps to use healthy, renewable energy here in Duluth and believe the city should support similar efforts at the state level
Most interestingly is what question 5 asks:
- Would you support a City Council resolution asking Minnesota Power to meet future energy growth needs for Duluth by providing low cost renewable energy?
- Support: 73% (with 55% strongly supporting this idea)
- Neutral: 10%
- Opposed: 17%
Now, let’s fast-forward to Minnesota Power’s proposed Community Solar Pilot Program for Duluth and flesh out some details.
MP is currently proposing to the PUC that it be allowed sole control over “community” solar gardens. It’s important to note that in 2013, legislation was passed requiring Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power to generate 1.5% of their power from solar. While Xcel’s community solar model allows ratepayers to set up solar gardens and sell power to their neighbors (a true “community” solar model), MP’s proposed Community Solar Pilot Program restricts expansion of community solar beyond its control and benefit. In addition to restricting the expansion of community solar in Duluth and its broader service area, the proposed cost of MP’s “community” solar program is much higher compared to community solar programs in the rest of the state. The minimum buy-in for MP’s proposal is 1kW; five times greater than in the Twin Cities, where it is 200w.
One of the reasons MP has put forth for maintaining sole control of expansion of solar projects in Duluth is that as of today, only 231 of its Duluth customers have expressed interest in participating in its pilot program, indicating a low level of potential participation. Compare that to the level of interest in Conservation Minnesota’s Duluth Energy Survey, and the resulting number of residents who support MP meeting our future energy needs with low cost renewables, and one can’t help but ask the question, “Why the discrepancy?” How has MP reached out to its customers to gauge interest in participation? The Duluth League of Women Voters facilitated a community forum in February to allow concerned citizens to ask MP questions about their community solar proposal. During that forum, MP stated it reached out to its customers through phone surveys conducted by a company based in Minneapolis and also conducted focus groups, but would not expand on its methodology or results.
Conservation Minnesota is supporting efforts of Duluth residents, along with local and statewide organizations, to ensure people in Duluth and MP’s service area have a true community solar garden option that benefits customers and the community, not just a solar service that MP benefits from by providing it as an option to ratepayers.
We greatly appreciate the efforts of Conservation Minnesota members who have petitioned the PUC and expressed their concerns. The PUC will be holding a hearing on May 12th, and we’ll be communicating further details and opportunities to get involved. For more information about the issue and how to help, please contact me by email or at 218-626-7273.
And finally, a much deserved, public note of thanks to the organizations working on achieving modifications to MP’s community solar proposal:
Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light
The Duluth McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League
Rural Renewable Energy Alliance