A large-scale solar field — maybe the first in the metro area — could be selling solar power to Washington County residents as soon as next summer.
According to the developer, the 5-acre field would give people their first opportunity to buy solar power without buying solar panels. The solar garden of 4,000 panels would generate a maximum flow of 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power 140 typical homes.
“We feel it’s important to be close to the community that is buying the power,” said Ben Ganje, a spokesman for Able Energy Co. of River Falls, which is planning up to four solar gardens.
Ganje said the company is negotiating to buy 5-acre sites in Woodbury and Lake Elmo and is considering additional sites in Afton and other locations.
The proposal marks the local launch of a new industry — the generation of power by solar entrepreneurs.
Under a program authorized by the Legislature last year, independent businesses and groups may set up arrays of solar panels and then sell the power to local customers.
“It’s another option for customers who may not want to participate in rooftop solar,” said Lee Gabler, director of demand-side management and renewable programs for Xcel Energy.
Xcel predicts success for the new program based on its experience in Colorado. There, Xcel launched a similar program in 2006. In 2012 and 2013, Gabler said, 25 new solar gardens were approved, for a total output of 18 megawatts.
The largest of the Colorado solar gardens is twice the size of the fields Able is planning for Washington County, and the smallest are about half the size.
Besides the Minnesota solar garden program, Xcel has its own plans to build large-scale solar fields. The company is requesting bids for proposals to generate 150 solar megawatts — 150 as much as each of the gardens planned for Washington County.
The 150 megawatts might come from one large field or several small ones, according to Xcel spokeswoman Patti Nystuen.
The megafield, or fields, would be built by the end of 2016 somewhere in a midwestern region that includes Minnesota.
She said the details of the program still are being developed, and it would be at least four months before the company will start taking applications from consumers.
WHO WILL BE FIRST?
In the race to build the first solar garden in the metro area, Able Energy has a competitor.
David Wakely, spokesman for MN Community Solar, said the group is planning a 40-kilowatt array on the rooftop of Northern Sun Merchandising on Lake Street in Minneapolis. The power has been 100 percent presold and is expected to go online in the fall, he said.
In the suburbs, the solar entrepreneurs are sailing into uncharted waters.
Their solar gardens must be approved by city officials — and it isn’t known what objections might come from neighbors.
Woodbury’s zoning ordinances don’t even mention solar fields, according to associate planner Eric Searles. He couldn’t predict whether a new solar garden would be approved, saying it depends on the location and other details.
Even small-scale rooftop installations get a cool reception in the suburbs. Many homeowner associations ban them, saying they hurt property values. Will the solar gardens be treated the same way?
Ganje doesn’t think so.
“This will be on an unused tract of land,” he said. The panels won’t be an eyesore, he said, because they will be mounted close to the ground.
Indeed, the Colorado solar gardens didn’t inspire any neighbor complaints that Xcel’s Gabler was aware of.
Able Energy is now taking subscriptions — which are commitments to buy power.
“We need a down payment on the first three months of energy,” Ganje said. The company is hosting an informational meeting for potential customers in Woodbury on Thursday.
Ganje said the cost for the garden would be $2 million, not including the land.
He wasn’t sure if the cost of the solar power would be slightly more or slightly less than conventional power.
But customers will be able to lock in a price for the next 20 years — which he said will inevitably save them money in the long term.
“They will pay at today’s dollars, not inflation-adjusted dollars,” said Ganje. “Back in 1988, if I could have just locked in the price of gas, I would have.”
Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him at twitter.com/BshawPP.
IF YOU GO
An informational meeting about a proposed solar garden will be from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the Valley Creek “A” Room of Central Park Library, 8595 Central Park Place, Woodbury. For information, contact Ben Ganje, marketing director for Able Energy Co., at 612-205-2174 or email@example.com; or visit www.weknowsolar.com or Minnesotacommunitysolar.com.