Perhaps the reason small solar energy installations in Minnesota are called gardens is because they mimic the chloroplast behavior of leaves by capturing the energy of sunlight to nourish the organism. In other parts of the world, they’re called farms or ranches rather than, more explicitly, power stations delivering electricity at the utility level. 

These gardens have just started growing in Minnesota, but capturing solar energy is not a 21st century endeavor; solar energy has been harnessed by humans since ancient times via evolving technologies. In the 7th century B.C., magnifying glasses were used to concentrate the sun’s rays to make fire; in the 3rd century B.C., Greeks and Romans used burning mirrors to light torches. Archimedes, it is supposed, used reflective bronze shields to set fire to enemy ships in the 2nd century B.C.

During the Industrial Revolution, which was largely founded on the premise of inexhaustible supply of fossil fuels, forward-thinking engineers developed an impressive array of techniques for capturing solar radiation. Auguste Mouchout, a mathematics professor at the Lyce de Tours, is credited with developing the first solar motor—just as France was working out the kinks for transporting coal and improving its relationship with England. In the end, the rush to develop fossil fuels for an energy hungry world won the race.

Despite continuous and positive advancements in solar mechanical technology, the future of solar energy has been problematic given the massive infrastructure, stable markets and ample supplies of oil and coal companies. In 1991, the world’s largest solar-based electricity company, Luz Industries, filed for bankruptcy despite its nine giant plants in the Mojave Desert capable of generating smogless energy for 350,000 California households. The failure of solar electric companies was due not to technological failures, but to failures of regulatory bodies to recognize the economic and environmental benefits of solar thermal generating plants.

Nevertheless, visionaries sallied forth independently. The tallest skyscraper built in the 1990s (4 Times Square) incorporated more energy-efficient building techniques than any other commercial skyscraper, including building-integrated-photovoltaic panels on the curtain wall of the 37th through 43rd floors on the south and west-facing facades. Why? Because the demand for and cost of energy is relentless and rising—leading us to today, when the realization that energy needs cannot be met through conventional natural energy resources because fossil fuels are both finite and polluting.

 

Hail the return of the sun

What if we, like trees and plants, could harness the energy of the sun—an infinite and zero emissions source—to generate electricity?

In July, WRISE, the Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy organization, sponsored a tour of the Rosemount Community Solar Garden. The solar garden is part of a larger project that will total approximately 96 megawatts throughout the Twin Cities metro area and greater Minnesota. Xcel Energy, BHE Renewables and Geronimo Energy worked together to bring the Rosemount Community Solar Project online.

The 35-acre garden is built with thin PV technology. It produces 5MW of power annually (which is as much as is allowed by the PUC) and its subscribers include: St Paul Public Housing, St. Olaf, District Energy, Andersen Corp. and the City of Woodbury.

 

How solar garden subscription works

Average Minnesotans can participate in solar gardens (whether they live in an apartment, condo or home) by subscribing to a share of a solar garden owned and operated by an energy company. Participants will still get their electric service from Xcel, while the solar garden’s electricity goes to the grid.

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Subscribers aren’t buying the power; Xcel is buying it at a state-mandated price, 2 to 3 cents higher than the retail rate. Subscribers still get all their power from Xcel, at retail rates. The pricing difference is what creates savings for subscribers. Every month, the subscribers are credited by Xcel (or another participating electrical co-op) at the higher rate for their share of the solar garden’s output.

The value of solar energy is higher than energy derived from fossil fuels for several reasons:

In 1983, Minnesota became the first state to require net metering for distributed generation. More than 30 years later, in 2013, Minnesota became the first state to adopt a “value of solar” tariff as an alternative to net metering; VOS requires utilities to pay investor-owned utilities a transparent, market-based price for solar energy based on:

  • avoiding the purchase of energy from polluting sources,
  • avoiding the need to build additional power plant capacity to meet peak energy needs,
  • providing energy for decades at a fixed price and
  • reducing wear and tear on the electric grid, including power lines, substations and power plants. 

 

Revving up (with no smoke)

It’s taken a while to get here, but the power of the sun (in which 1 KW of solar energy unit is roughly equivalent to the burning of 170 pounds of coal) is being harnessed in fields and farmlands throughout the state.  Minnesota solar capacity leaped 80 percent in the first quarter of 2017 to 447 megawatts with another 325 MW coming online by the end of 2017. Altogether, Minnesota’s solar arrays have the capacity to crank out about as much power as one of Xcel Energy’s larger natural gas-fired plants—at least when it’s sunny. 

Do your due diligence. Read the flip side before you invest.