Conservation Minnesota

Going solar: can your city see the light?

This past fall, the Falcon Heights City Hall added a new solar panel installment to their roof. This installment will provide an average of 25% of the building’s energy use. Photo: Julie Drennen

Many communities in the Twin Cities metro are working hard to conserve energy and increase usage of renewable energy. In my work throughout the East Metro, I have seen this discussion focus specifically on how a city can “go solar,” or find a way to increase the percentage of electricity derived from solar energy. While going solar is a fantastic way to promote clean energy sources, governments and commissions sometimes struggle with what would be the best approach to increase its use of solar energy. If you are considering talking with your city about increasing its renewable energy use, these ideas below can serve as a way to open the discussion.

  • There is a national recognition program, called SolSmart, that guides cities in reducing the additional costs and time it can take to install solar panels. The additional costs typically refers to city permitting fees, and the time expense refers to filling out lengthy application forms and attending city commission meetings to seek approval of an application to install solar – this time commitment can sometimes be multiple evening meetings a month. The SolSmart program, and others like it, ultimately helps make it easier for homeowners and businesses to acquire their own solar panels. SolSmart even offers a chart with steps and examples. This is a great way for cities to support solar use without necessarily committing to their own solar investments.
  • Minnesota cities can subscribe to a community solar garden within their county or a neighboring county. This would look similar to individual homeowner subscriptions to community solar gardens – the city would subscribe, or pay for a share of the energy produced by the solar garden. The value of that share of energy can then be deducted from the city’s energy bill. In 2015, the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team (CERT) and the Metropolitan Council offered a program that facilitated metro-area city subscriptions to community solar gardens. The application process for this program is currently closed, but I would suggest keeping it on your radar for the future.
  • A city can install solar panels on one of their own buildings. While this may seem like a big investment, I’ve actually seen many cities take this step first, even before considering making solar more accessible for residents or subscribing to a solar garden. For high energy usage buildings, solar actually makes a lot of sense as a facilities upgrade. To make a solar installation happen, a city needs to select a solar installer and discuss which municipal building(s) would yield the highest energy output – this depends on which direction the building is facing, the size of the roof, and the number of trees and other tall buildings that could obstruct sunlight. The city would then go through a roof assessment and, hopefully, get the “ok” from the solar installer. Depending on the solar installer and the size of the array, the city may have a few options available for how to use that energy, including:
    • The city could simply lease their roof space to the solar company and receive monthly payments. For this to be profitable for the solar installer, the roof size would need to be large enough to accommodate around 300kW, with the most ideal size being 500kW.
    • The city could use the solar panels for their own energy use. Typically, when this happens, the city pays monthly payments to lease the solar panels from the solar installer (usually for a 25-year contract), and the city’s energy bill is credited for the energy produced by the solar panels.
    • If the city building is large enough, it can also accommodate a community solar garden, which city residents can then subscribe to. Edina is pursuing this option. This is a wonderful way to develop community pride in local, clean energy. A solar installer can speak to the preferred size of a solar array for it to be a community solar garden, but I’ll note that the average home could offset energy bills by subscribing to two-to-five kilowatts (kW) of solar energy. A 500kW array would accommodate 100 homes, for example. A solar garden on a city building would ideally accommodate more than a few homes, so the larger the building, the better. The city can also subscribe to the community solar garden on their rooftop, but that subscription can only ever include 40% of the kW of their array.

There are many options and a variety of specific details for cities interested in “going solar.” Perhaps as more cities pursue solar energy, these processes will become more streamlined. Until then, I hope I’ve clarified it a little bit in this post!

For success stories and examples, check out the Metro CERT’s blog on their main page. Are you interested in helping your city go solar? Email me and we can discuss how this process could look for your community – Julie@conservationminnesota.org.

About Julie Drennen

Julie Drennen
When it comes to East Metro Regional Managers, Julie is easily our finest. Sure, there may be lack of competition for the role as she is the only east regional manager, but we are lucky to have her all the same. While she was born in Ohio, Julie grew up in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. She earned a Political Science degree from the University of Minnesota Morris.
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