Fostering Renewable Energy through Innovation and Collaboration

Back to Spring 2019: Volume 108, Number 1

By Usha Ramamurthy

Proving that you don’t have to be in a sunny climate to use sun power, the City of Edina, Minnesota, is a leader in solar energy use as part of its overall efforts to promote renewable energy. The city recently earned the prestigious SolSmart Gold designation to become the third city in the Twin Cities Metro Area to ready the community to be open for solar business.

So, what does this designation mean for Edina? As a SolSmart designee, the city has done a deep dive into their processes, codes, regulations, and much more so that solar providers have more streamlined processes to bringing solar options to the community and that translates to lower costs that can be passed on to local residents and businesses. This in turn drives solar business to the community and drives local development and jobs.

Edina’s highly dedicated staff and supportive residents are focused on making their city a leader in renewable energy. As Casey Casella, a city management fellow who worked diligently on this effort, said in an interview with the Sun Current, “City staff have worked for over a year and took a critical eye to our processes and ordinances. We are proud to encourage solar in our community and look forward to future innovation in renewable technologies.”

Edina is the first city to have a truly inclusive solar concept as part of their desire to have renewable energy be vital to the fabric of the community. The city is the proud host of the Edina Community Solar Garden that is located on roof of the Edina Public Works Building at 7450 Metro Boulevard. Another first is that this community solar garden exclusively has only residential subscribers of all income levels, including low and moderate income–a total of 68 households take advantage of this energy source. All this was possible because of a commitment by and collaboration between the City of Edina, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MIPL), and Cooperative Energy Futures.

The idea of a community solar garden began with the city’s Energy and Environment Commission pursuing ideas to make the city a leader in using renewable energy. They knew it would be difficult because most community solar gardens reside on rural farms with ample ground space. City project workers Megan O’Hara and Tara Brown were introduced to the community solar garden project and they worked closely with Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MIPL), an organization that partners with faith communities to address the climate crisis.

O’Hara and Brown had to ensure that residents learn about the solar garden project, support it, and that all 68 households subscribe within a six- month period in order to procure the needed project funding. The community solar garden contract with each household required a commitment of 25 years and, if you left your household sooner than the 25-year timeframe, you would have to pay a fine and the next person on the waiting list would become a new community solar garden member. This truly made the contract fair and equitable for every household regardless of income. “At the end of the day, the solar garden would not have been created had we not had residents sign up to be subscribers,” Brown told a reporter for the local high school newspaper.

The developer of the community solar garden and the only developer in the state of low- to moderate-income household accessible community solar gardens, Cooperative Energy Futures is an energy co-op that supports resident ownership of energy sources and wanted the maximum number of people to benefit from this effort regardless of whether they could afford solar panels on their homes or not. They are also current investors in solar gardens all around the greater Minneapolis area. The goal was to have participants of the solar garden pay less for their electricity and have the added benefit of supporting an environmentally friendly way to source their energy.

Financing for the project was made possible because Edina residents subscribed early in support of the effort, affirming to the banks that this was a worthy investment. Cooperative Energy Futures has leased the roof space from the City of Edina for 25 years for this 618kW solar garden and installed 1,926 solar panels. O’Hara said in the student newspaper interview, “Part of the beauty of this model is that it serves people no matter their income level because as long as you have an electric bill, no matter how small, you can offset the electricity costs by paying a similar amount to Cooperative Energy Futures.”

Another commitment made by the city of Edina is to serve as the backup subscriber to the community solar garden. This means the city will purchase portions of the electricity produced by the community solar garden should subscribers unexpectedly leave the program, ensuring that electricity from this source continues to be cheaper, the community solar garden thrives without interruption, and the financial risks to Cooperative Energy Futures are mitigated. This truly demonstrates the city’s overall focus on becoming a leader in renewable energy.

Tara Brown in front of the City of Edina’s community solar garden. 

The City of Edina’s community solar garden opened in late 2018 and is now fully utilized, with a waiting list. The city is also proud to share their road to success with other communities and will be monitoring their progress as they continue to focus on renewable energy efforts.

Usha Ramamurthy is director of the National Civic League’s Sustainability Program.

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