Residents of the Xcel Energy electric service area in Wisconsin have been offered an opportunity to become part of what the company says will be the largest community solar energy program in the state.
Under the program, up to three megawatts of solar generating capacity will be built in the state, funded by Xcel customer subscriptions. The subscriptions would be used to build the “energy gardens” and in return, customers would be repaid through monthly credits on their utility bills.
The program, entitled the “Solar*Connect Community” would allow participants to choose the amount of solar energy they want to subscribe to for their home or business, within certain limits. The program would require a minimum subscription of 200 watts, with more electricity available in 200-watt increments up to a maximum of 400 kilowatts. Under the program, a subscription could be sized to offset up to 100 percent of the customer’s annual electricity use.
The subscriptions would be good for 25 years, and have to be paid in advance before the energy garden goes into operation. A minimum deposit of $200 per kilowatt is required to reserve the subscription capacity.
Speaking at a presentation about the program at Northland College’s Alvord Theater was Douglas Stingle of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
He said the Solar*Connect initiative would consist of two large solar gardens, one proposed for location in La Crosse County, and the other in Eau Claire County. Each of these facilities would produce about one megawatt of electricity, making the project the largest community solar energy program in Wisconsin.
“It really allows everyone to have access,” Stingle said. “The Solar*Connect Community program is nice because it is very scalable. You can start with a very small investment. You don’t have to go 100 percent if you don’t want to right away.”
Stingle noted that while there are other community solar gardens in the state, Xcel is the first investor-owned utility to undertake such a project.
“We are really excited to see it in Wisconsin and to see growth in this area,” he said. “It’s a great development.”
Under the arrangement, Xcel will be partnering with Pristine Sun, an independent California-based solar power producer that is a leading developer of small utility-scale solar photovoltaic power plants in the United States.
While the program can lead to a net-zero electric bill, Stingle emphasized that it wasn’t necessarily being offered as an investment, but rather a way for people who may not be able to install solar energy infrastructure at their home or place of business.
“This is showing your support for solar energy, which has a totally different value,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said there were some added values that even someone considering on doing their own installation should be aware of.
Those include a payback rate of roughly 16 to 20 years, which means that for the remainder of the subscription tern, a period of five to nine years once the subscription is repaid, there would be little or no cost for electric service.
“It’s not bad,” Stingle said. “It’s definitely not a way you are going to get rich, but you are certainly not going to be losing any money and you are really investing in the future of the state of Wisconsin for your children and grandchildren in the future, because the more solar we have, the better our economy is.”
Stingle noted that solar power is a major part of Xcel’s plan to reduce reliance on fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity.
“If you can invest with all of those positive benefits, plus still have it be a positive financial situation, that is a win-win situation,” he said.
During the presentation, the questions ranged from possibilities for financing to upkeep costs.
Stingle noted that Xcel would not be offering financing but noted that BMO Harris Bank and Royal Credit Union were both Wisconsin financial institutions that Xcel had worked with and were familiar with the Solar*Connect program.
One of the real advantages of the program, Stingle said, was that all the maintenance of the project was the responsibility was that of Pristine Sun and Xcel, and that there would never be any costs associated with the maintenance and operation of the solar garden.
The subscription can be transferred to a new address, if it is located within the Xcel Energy service area, Stingle said. If a customer moves out of the service area, thy can be given a pro-rated refund. In the event of the death of a subscriber, a pro-rated refund can also be made. The subscription cannot be transferred or sold to a different person.
The subscription price is $1,780 per kilowatt-hour and the average home uses about 9,000 kilowatt-hours per year.
In Wisconsin the solar production bill credit for customers would amount to 6.9 cents per kilowatt-hour for large businesses and 7.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for residences, farms and small businesses.
According to Xcel Energy documents, that is considerably lower than the 12 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour paid in Minnesota.
The difference, said Stingle, had to do with differences in laws in effect in the two states. Nevertheless, the plan offered to Wisconsin residents offered considerable value, and something whose time has come.
“Really solar has become mainstream,” he said. “It is big business. The number one corporate buyer of solar in the US is Wal-Mart, and if Wal-Mart is the number one buyer, it is not an alternative energy anymore. It is mainstream. In fact in 2015, solar was the number one new generating capacity installed in the United States, even more than natural gas. Solar is an American success story.”
Additional information on the program, sign-up information and residential and business subscription calculators are available online at xcelenergy.com/SolarConnectCommunity and more information can also be obtained through company representatives at 1-800-824-1688.