Xcel Energy plans Ashland solar garden

Xcel Energy plans to develop a one-megawatt solar garden in Ashland as part of its Solar*Connect Community program.

This would be the third solar garden in this program, which promises clean energy benefits to communities in return for local buy-in.

A community solar garden in Eau Claire has been generating energy since October 2017, and a facility in the La Crosse area is on track to go live in fall 2018. If enough subscribers show interest in this project, a third one-megawatt solar garden will be built in Ashland by mid-2019.

“This past year, we’ve had tremendous support for our Solar*Connect Community program from both residential and business customers,” said Mark Stoering, president of Xcel Energy Wisconsin. “They have told us they want more options when it comes to their energy, and this program allows them to support locally sourced solar energy and receive bill credits at the same time.”

Community solar gardens are arrays of solar panels, which can be oriented in a fixed position or can swivel to track the sun, maximizing electricity production. Each panel is about three feet wide and six feet long, and each garden will have about 3,000 panels, covering an area about as big as a football field.

Residential energy customers or businesses may be part of the community. Solar gardens in this program are built, managed and maintained by a developer partner — OneEnergy Renewables in this case — and connected to the local power grid run by Xcel Energy.

Subscribers pay a one-time fee to join the program, and then receive a credit on their monthly electric bill based on their subscription size and the combined energy produced by all the gardens in the network.

Michael Miller, president of Northland College, says the planned development in Ashland is “outstanding news,” and the school is in talks to become more involved in sustaining the effort.

“It will assist with Northland’s goal of investing in renewable energy and becoming carbon neutral and assist the entire region in becoming resiliently self-sufficient,” Miller said.

Subscriptions cost $1,600 per kilowatt. The minimum subscription package of 200 watts costs $320, and would produce enough energy to offset 3 percent of an average residential customer’s usage, Xcel Energy estimates.

Subscriptions can be sized up to 100 percent of the average annual electricity usage, but the maximum subscription amount is 400 kilowatts.

The bill credit will never fall lower than the initial rate, but since the bill credit is calculated from the average cost of all generation in the company’s fleet, any changes to the generation mix in the Upper Midwest area will impact the bill credit. Xcel Energy says the cost of generation in the fleet has previously changed by up to 3 percent annually.

The amount of the bill credit will also change over time due to variation in sunlight levels and solar production, Xcel Energy notes.

Subscriptions are on a first-come, first-served basis, and any Xcel Energy electric customer in the state can take part.

Two upcoming events in Ashland will provide more info to customers. A UW Extension Renewable Energy Workshop will be held Feb. 8, and an Xcel Energy “60 Minutes of Solar” meeting will be held Feb. 22.

Get more details on the program here: http://www.xcelenergy.com/programs_and_rebates/residential_programs_and_rebates/renewable_energy_options_residential/solar/available_solar_options/community-based_solar

–By Alex Moe