Northfield Solar Gardens 1

Newly built solar gardens stand off of Hwy. 19 (330th Street West) on St. Olaf land. The site is leased by BHE Renewables, which owns and operates the gardens. The company said subscriptions to the gardens are 100 percent filled. (Philip Weyhe/Northfield News)

Northfield has a new way of contributing to renewable energy, as solar panels have risen from the ground on St. Olaf land in the northwest corner of the city.

The panels, which are on land leased by St. Olaf, make up five community solar gardens, as defined by Xcel Energy, and in all, produce 5 megawatts (5,000 kilowatts) of power. The site is owned and operated by BHE Renewables, which purchased it from the original developer, Geronimo Energy.

The power from the gardens is purchased by Xcel Energy and added into the company’s overall power grid. To support the construction and operation of the gardens, organizations and/or residents subscribe to them. Those entities and people still buy their power regularly through Xcel, but they get credit on their power bill for the investment in community gardens.

The credit any one entity receives depends on the amount in which it subscribes. St. Olaf is subscribing to 40 percent of the new Northfield gardens. The college uses about 14,000 megawatt hours (14 million kilowatt) to power its campus, according to Assistant Vice President for Facilities Pete Sandberg, so 40 percent of the 5 megawatt Northfield solar gardens doesn’t represent much of the campus’s output.

Yet, the college aims to subscribe to the same amount of renewable energy as it buys. That’s where the 19 other subscriptions to solar garden sites come in. According to Sandberg, St. Olaf subscribes to about 14,000 megawatt hours in all — just short of the amount of power it buys.

“It’s pretty much cost neutral,” Sandberg said. “Over the long haul, we end up coming out a little ahead, but it’s not anything you do to make a fortune or anything like that. For me, if you can work through all this, and end up bringing new generation on line and buying carbon-free power, then that’s a thing you should do.”

Subscribing to solar power does not ensure the purchasing of carbon-free power in itself. However, the college’s recent decision to utilize Xcel’s Windsource program does ensure the campus will run carbon-free electric. The program allows residential and commercial customers in Minnesota to directly and specifically purchase Xcel’s wind power.

Benefits to community

The remaining 60 percent of subscriptions to the Northfield solar gardens site are all filled, according to BHE Renewables Solar General Manager Neal Poteet. The subscriptions are provided by a mix of commercial and residential buyers. Poteet also confirmed all the panels are now installed and connected to the Xcel distribution lines.

The site was originally developed by Geronimo Energy for the purpose of the solar gardens. According to Geronimo Marketing and Communications Director Lindsay Smith, the company obtained the permits and utilized the land.

Northfield City Planner Scott Tempel said the process took a lengthy period of time — over a year — to reach final approval. However, he noted Geronimo was a good partner.

“It was a very diligent, thorough process,” he said. “But Geronimo was excellent to work with. They were really concerned with our citizens.”

Smith said the company saw a willing participant in the Northfield community and city. She specifically noted the agriculture community.

“We always try to put farmer-friendly as our most important value when we develop these projects,” she said. “Making sure our projects provide economical value to those host communities. Northfield was a perfect fit for us. I’d say it was very much a success for us.”

After developing the location and attaining the necessary approvals, Geronimo sold the ready-for-construction site to BHE Renewables. For BHE, the Northfield site is just one of the dozens of sites it purchased throughout 17 Minnesota counties — all as part of the Xcel Energy SolarRewards Community program.

“The project ties in very well with St. Olaf College and its renewable energy approach, including the wind turbine on campus,” BHE’s Poteet said. “Community solar gardens are an alternative to private solar installations, because they allow residents, business owners, nonprofits and municipalities to purchase subscriptions to solar energy with a grid-connected solar array.”

Poteet went on to describe some of the benefits a community might reap from hosting solar gardens. First, Minnesota law requires investor-owned utilities (like Xcel) to obtain 1.5 percent of their power from solar energy by 2020. The Northfield site is one of many contributing to that state goal.

Additionally, according to Poteet, renewable energy projects, such as community solar gardens, provide increased tax revenue and offer substantial land payments for their host community members and landowners.

And in the end, every individual solar garden is part of a larger overall mission.

“We believe solar gardens are good for Minnesota, because they will have a major impact on the state’s economy and its energy future,” Poteet said. “We are proud to see these solar gardens come to life.”

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

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