For many involved in the community solar industry, Xcel Energy is a household name. Known for its expansive and continually growing portfolio of solar installations, Xcel Energy wants to outdo anything that’s been done in Minnesota. The solar utility company is looking at developing the largest community solar plant in Minnesota. Proposed as a development in the town of Becker, near Xcel’s coal-power complex, the project is expected to cost approximately $575 million, but its scope will be well worth the high price tag.
According to Xcel’s plan for the community solar plant, it would create 900 construction jobs, all protected by a local union. The employment opportunities would employ many of the state’s currently unemployed individuals, giving them a leg up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As another benefit to the communities and people of Minnesota, the completed facility is expected to generate enough energy to power upwards of 100,000 homes in the state’s Upper Midwest.
The decision to build the largest community solar plant in Minnesota comes shortly before Xcel Energy plans to decommission three of its Sherco coal generators. Solar energy offers a cleaner, more sustainable, and cheaper option to deliver power to households in Minnesota. In shutting down the three coal generators earlier than expected, Xcel is proactively moving away from fossil fuels and putting more of its efforts into clean, solar energy. For homeowners, that means easier access to clean energy and reduced rates.
Xcel has been considering this sizable venture since 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed any discussions. The official plan and formal proposal was submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in response to the PUC’s urging to accelerate all investments to help recover the economy after the pandemic lost the city revenue and left many residents out of work. The president of Xcel’s Minnesota and Dakotas division, Christopher Clark, emphasized the importance of this community solar plant, stating that they will open up opportunities connected to clean energy but also make homeowner utility bills more affordable.
Despite being the largest community solar plant in Minnesota, the plans for the Sherco solar facility will actually be the least expensive of its kind in the state. To help keep the cost of the project as low as possible, Xcel will utilize the transmission infrastructure being left behind by the coal plants being closed down.
Should Minnesota’s PUC approve Xcel Energy’s plans for a sizable community solar plant, the utility company aims to start and complete construction between 2022 and 2024. National Grid Renewables from Edina will join Xcel Energy in the development and construction of the planned project. Xcel would still remain the owner of the plant and would be in charge of operations, but National Grid Renewables would play a considerable role in ensuring the project is completed.
Upon completion, Xcel Energy’s Sherco community solar plant would generate up to 460-megawatts of power. This would be used to help power the community and provide low-cost solar options to those that cannot build private panels due to cost or space constraints. Based on Xcel’s current portfolio, the new plant would more than quadruple the capacity and production of its current largest facility, a 100-megawatt facility in Chisago County. Additional projects in Aurora and Marshall further add to Xcel’s growing portfolio.
With every solar site that Xcel develops, homeowners throughout Minnesota and other states it develops in receive a considerable benefit. They get to participate in the environmentally-friendly practice of clean energy while shaving money off of their monthly utility bills. A typical community solar plant will take on subscribers who will subscribe to a unit of the facility’s energy. They will receive a credit on their bill equal to the solar energy they use, which typically amounts to approximately 10%.
Most community solar facilities come with no risks. Homeowners and small businesses can subscribe for a small fee and are able to cancel without a penalty. No contract requires a minimum time before a participant can walk away, as company’s like Xcel often have little issue refilling the subscription with a waiting list.
Though Xcel is looking to develop the largest community solar plant in Minnesota, there remains the 789-megawatt capacity Community Solar Garden program that stands as the company’s largest solar power source. The program is scattered across 400 different sites. It’s also planning on building a 750-megawatt gas-fired plant by the mid-2020s. What’s the point of all this added work? Xcel Energy is committed to its plan to transition to 100% clean energy by the close of 2050 – a goal that many utility companies and states are attempting to reach.
There is still much to be done on the largest community solar plant before construction can commence, but Xcel already knows that it will be developing a training program for the large workforce required. This program will provide skills in construction and utilities that individuals can carry with them to other jobs after construction is complete. For the development of the project, Xcel stated it would be hiring minority and women-owned businesses as contractors on the community solar plant.
The PUC currently has no timeline as to when it will review Xcel’s proposal. If approved, though, the company will be able to streamline the development of its project alongside National Grid Renewables. If the project is denied, Xcel will need to return to the drawing board or consider bringing its large community solar plant to an entirely different state.