Q&A: Would I Benefit From Solar Energy? How?

There are many new ways for people in Minneapolis to benefit from solar power, especially in 2015 and 2016. (And no need to feel like Minnesota winters put us at a disadvantage; we do just as well as other southern-based solar installations.)

It can be a relatively easy entry to Minneapolis solar energy, depending on your situation.

At a recent MPLS Green forum (Conscious Living Expo) we talked about 10 Ideas for Sustainable Living. One of the guest speakers was Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, of Cooperative Energy Futures, who explained how much carbon the typical Minneapolis family burns each month… and how solar energy options should help us all save money. Here’s an introductory snippet (more to come):

Option 1: Solar panels for individual owner

You can hire a developer to install panels on your roof if you have good direct sun without tree shading. Use the Solar Suitability app, newly developed at the University of Minnesota, to find out if your place has “bad,” “good” or “optimal” conditions for individual solar. (The app is new and still buggy, so you might need to play around with the pointer to get it in the right spot for your actual roof; it uses innovative data entry from aerial recordings.)

It has a GET STARTED link if you have good conditions that points you in the direction of local solar developers. Use this list from Clean Energy Builder to ask the right questions. Developers have vastly different policies, management and experience with Minnesota winters. [MORE ON LOCAL OPTIONS TO COME AT THIS WEBSITE]

Note that use of Minnesota-made panels can qualify for an incentive program that can substantially reduce installation costs; these program applications are due before February 28 of each year, available through 2023. Heliene, itek Energy, tenKsolar and Silicon Energy are local manufacturers with products that are eligible.

Commercial owners, non-profits, churches and schools are also eligible to participate.

Option 2: Sign up for a Community Solar Garden (CSG)

If your space is not optimal, or you are a renter that pays a utility bill, you can take advantage of cost savings and reduce climate impact by signing up for a CSG. You purchase a subscription — pay-as-you-go, pay upfront, or hybrid models are available.

When subscribers are lined up — often with an anchor tenant that represents a substantial portion of the project — the developer installs solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in a neighboring sunny location that produces renewable electricity. You will get credit on your utility bill for the electricity generated. Note: you need to be connected in a certain way with a utility program like Xcel Energy to qualify. Learn more here.

Use this CERTs resource to learn more about the questions that community groups in particular might need to ask before subscribing with a developer: Community Solar Garden: Community Tips (12-11-14)

Sounds Too Good to Be True

This is real. CSG subscribers will save on utility bills each month, without needing to install anything on their roof. Minnesota’s legislature — thanks to great work by many community advocates — passed important new laws in 2013 that require local utilities to participate in clean energy options.

According to Clean Energy Resource Teams, a local non-profit educational resource, a typical home in Minnesota uses 800 kilowatt-hours (kWh) each month, often peaking with electricity use in July, but also substantial in cold winter months. Four kilowatts of solar energy can provide HALF the electricity used by a typical Minnesota home. Subscribers are entitled to sign on for as little as 200 watts of solar capacity or up to 120% of their average annual energy use.

Check out this resource: CERTs Solar Simple Steps

Consumer safeguards: In other parts of the country where solar development was instituted earlier, certain companies did take advantage of customers with bad business practices. Use Clean Energy Resource Team resources as a safeguard to help you avoid those issues. They include detailed questions to ask, and information about the ways typical credits are assessed and compensated by the utility company per law (generally dollar per kilowatt hour produced basis).

Important legal details: Unless you are buying in a cooperative, tax benefits for the installation of a community solar garden — available until the end of 2016 — are awarded to the developer, not the subscriber. A minimum FICO score is required by most CSG contracts in order to qualify. [We’ll write more at MPLSGreen.com about options for low-income community members to participate!]

Before signing as a CSG subscriber, be sure elements included in the Community Solar Garden Subscriber Disclosure Checklist are addressed.

CSG Subscription Options

Pay upfront: subscriber pays a one-time fee that covers the life of the agreement, then reaps benefits (generally utility bill credits for energy produced).

Pay-as-you-go: subscriber pays in installments; most residential CSG developers will offer this option when things roll out in 2015.

Hybrid: Many developers will offer opportunities that combine the two options, requiring less money upfront.

A typical subscription will last 25 years, so there are important questions to understand about transferability of credit for long-term (what if you move? want to cancel? die?) — as well as solvency of developer and its installation.

For more details, including questions to ask about subscription options and costs, see this CERTs resource (PDF): Community Solar Garden: Subscriber Questions (12-11-14)

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