Community Solar Power

File photo from Feb. 26, 2015. Solar panels in Rockford, Minn. that are a part of the community gardens owned by the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association.   

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The La Crescent-Hokah School District could save as much as $450,000 on its energy bills over the next 25 years after agreeing to subscribe to a solar garden, according to district superintendent Kevin Cardille.

The district has agreed to buy 25 percent of the output from a solar garden in Rollingstone, north of Winona, that’s expected to be built next year by Minnesota-based company SolarStone. Xcel Energy will buy the power produced by the solar garden and credit the school district for the electricity generated by their portion of the garden.

Cardille said the district should save money on its energy bills from Xcel Energy, depending on rate increases over the course of the agreement. The utility company’s rates have increased by an average of 3.3 percent annually for the last 20 years. Cardille said he estimates the district could save between $15,000 and $450,000 on its energy bills as a result of the agreement.

“It won’t be a huge amount of money, but it’s something, and we’re still left with some partnering power with 75 percent to play with,” said Cardille. “And it gets us started on this solar process that we’ve been looking to get involved in for some time now.”

SolarStone currently has 15 different solar garden projects, with eight of them on the grid and the other seven yet to be developed, including the Rollingstone project. The company has similar agreements with other units of local government and school districts in Minnesota.

“One of the things we discovered early on is that counties, cities and school districts consume a lot of energy,” said Gordy Simanton, SolarStone Vice President of Business Development. “And the other thing, is that they don’t look at a 25-year contract as a hurdle, because they aren’t going anywhere before then.”

In 2013, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Solar Energy Jobs Act into law that required utilities to get 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar power by 2020 and created the solar garden program. The program allows customers like the school district to subscribe to solar gardens and then receive credits on their energy bills.

When Cardille joined the district three years ago the district began actively considering solar options, including entering some lotteries for solar projects in which they were never drawn for. Cardille also said the district looked into getting solar panels on school property, but the investment was deemed financially out of reach.

After being approached by SolarStone, the school board deliberated over the contract, and ultimately decided they would subscribe up to 50 percent of the garden. But by the time they were ready to move forward with SolarStone, there was only 25 percent of the garden left for subscription, said Cardille.

Although the solar garden subscription isn’t the independent solar opportunity the district was searching for, Cardille is satisfied with the deal because it gets them involved in solar, and at the same time doesn’t lock the district down completely. But Cardille does wish the solar garden plan included more educational value for the students.

“One downfall with what we have, is there’s nothing here,” said Cardille. “Unlike the schools that have their own panels, and can access meters that read what’s being produced.”

Solar garden subscriptions have spiked in recent years, with Winona County, city and school district, along with the cities of La Crescent and Hokah all participating in the solar garden program.

“I think there are two sides of the equation here, and one is the quality of life, and the green and renewable energy standpoint that people have a proclivity to participate in that,” said Simanton. “But on the other side, is the financial rewards.”

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