City of Northfield staff and the City Council have been considering the merits of subscribing to community solar, potentially receiving credits on the city’s Xcel Energy electric bill. (Northfield News file photo)

The city of Northfield may take a step in the direction of renewable energy, as staff and the City Council consider the merits of subscribing to community solar gardens.

According to a staff report presented at Tuesday’s council meeting, there may be financial, in addition to environmental, benefits from investing in the renewable source. Minnesota Community Solar estimates show that, under a fixed rate option, the city might save $1.5 million-plus over 25 years through a 1,960 kilowatt subscription.

In 2013, Minnesota legislation directed Minneapolis-based utility, Xcel Energy, to create a program for community solar gardens.

A community solar garden is a centralized, shared solar project connected to the energy grid with multiple subscribers. Each subscriber receives a credit on their Xcel Energy electric bill based upon the production of solar facility and their ownership share of that facility.

Previous opportunities for the city of Northfield to subscribe to solar have not included a fixed rate option, which Community Solar staff say could save the city more money than floated rate options. Minnesota Community Solar presented a new fixed rate option for staff on Thursday, June 5. Subsequently, city staff initiated an internal review. The proposal presented Tuesday was for a project intended to begin later this year.

Instead of paying Xcel Energy directly, Northfield will purchase bill credits from Minnesota Community Solar. The credits are sold at a discount. There are no upfront costs or investments for the city in subscribing. The solar garden is not on city of Northfield property and is not operated by the city.

Minnesota Community Solar is requesting a city commitment by July 11, in order to meet its timelines. Legislative changes occurring at the end of the year will remove some opportunities, according to staff, creating urgency on the project.

Rick Masloski and Jane Qualey from Minnesota Community Solar were at the meeting Tuesday to provide some background on community solar projects and the subscriptions being proposed. Their organization is a subsidiary of Novel Energy Solutions, which has constructed over 85 solar projects, including the first four community solar gardens under Xcel’s program.

Community Solar is building several new community gardens this year. The one its asking the city of Northfield to subscribe to is set to be built in Steele County. Each garden must have at least five subscribers, and those subscribers must be located within the same or a neighboring county as the garden, making Northfield a suitable potential customer.

The Community Solar representatives said Tuesday the environmental value of the city subscribing to 1,960 kW of solar per year could equal reducing the emissions of 371 passenger vehicles driven for one year or the electricity use of 259 homes in one year.

“Besides saving money, your also supporting renewable energy,” Masloski said.

The council did not vote on any potential agreement at the meeting, as city staff is still reviewing possible contract details. Councilors expressed general support for a potential agreement, but several asked for more supporting information to come to future meetings.

Staff intends to bring a potential subscription agreement for council’s consideration at its July 11 meeting.

Reach Reporter Philip Weyhe at 507-333-3132 or follow him on Twitter @nfnphilweyhe.

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