Xcel Energy’s first community solar gardens in Wisconsin continue to be plagued by delays nearly eight months after they were scheduled to go online. But the Minnesota utility is pressing ahead with two projects in western Wisconsin, and two sites in the La Crosse area could yet be developed independently.

Earlier this month, developer Pristine Sun broke ground on a 1-megawatt solar garden in Eau Claire, which is expected to begin generating electricity later this year.

Meanwhile, Xcel has canceled Pristine Sun’s contract to build a second such project in the La Crosse area, citing a missed deadline.

Xcel’s manager of regulatory policy Deb Erwin said there were challenges finding sites and securing permits for both sites but no issues with state or local government regulation. Erwin said the company is seeking a new developer to take over the La Crosse project.

That shouldn’t be a problem, said Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin.

“I know that we have a lot of Wisconsin contractors that can build a megawatt of solar in hurry,” Huebner said.

Pending approval by Wisconsin regulators, Xcel says subscribers will begin receiving bill credits in September from a solar garden northeast of the Twin Cities in Chisago County until the Eau Claire site goes online. Erwin said she hopes the La Crosse installation will be completed in 2018.

Erwin said solar panel performance is comparable between the two states, so customers should see bill credits similar to what they can expect from the Wisconsin gardens.

“From the customer’s perspective, nothing changes,” she said. “The rate’s the same.”

After problems with the initial La Crosse County site, Pristine Sun secured a conditional use permit for a 13.4-acre site north of Sparta in the Monroe County town of Little Falls. They later settled on another site in the village of Rockland that is closer to existing transmission lines, and in May the village granted the landowner a conditional use permit.

“We had some challenges on development and just basically ran out of time,” said Pristine Sun CEO Troy Helming.

Helming said Pristine Sun is focusing on completing the Eau Claire site but will continue to pursue projects at the La Crosse and Monroe county sites, either for sale to a utility or the wholesale market, and eventually hopes to develop 10 to 20 sites in Wisconsin.

“I think solar’s going to be competitive with coal, nuclear and natural gas within a year or two,” Helming said. “Coal prices keep going up … solar costs keep coming down.”

Xcel’s projects are among more than 20 megawatts of large-scale AC solar capacity expected to come online this year, according to RENEW Wisconsin data. That includes 17 megawatts under contract to La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative.

The PSC last year authorized Xcel to offer up to 3 megawatts of community solar panels with the stipulation that the program is paid for only by customers who choose to subscribe.

Any of the utility’s 257,000 Wisconsin customers can buy panels in the gardens. In return they will get a credit on their monthly bill for the energy produced over the next 25 years. A single panel costs $356 and is estimated to produce about 3 percent of the average Wisconsin household’s annual electricity use.

According to Xcel’s estimates, residential and small-farm customers can expect to recoup their investments in 16 to 20 years through monthly bill credits.

Erwin said Xcel has sold about 90 percent of the 2 megawatts now under development.

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Rhymes with Lubbock. La Crosse Tribune reporter and data geek. Covers energy, transportation and the environment, among other things. Call him at 608-791-8217.

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