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Solar garden: Model T of renewable energy?

Renewable energy law in Minnesota requires utilities to get 1.5 percent of their power from solar. By Monday, Xcel Energy has to show how it would manage rollout of neighborhood solar gardens. Rather than an expensive home retrofit for renewable energy, solar gardens allow residents to buy shares of solar power.

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Rockford, Minn., erected this community solar array, the first in the state. The neighborhood hubs of solar panels are used to generate small amounts of power for the utility. A state renewable energy law encourages the building of more such community solar gardens.

Wright Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association via The Star Tribune/AP/File

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Minnesota is looking to grow its share of electricity fueled by the sun and is counting on community solar gardens to help make it happen.

A sweeping state energy law approved this spring demands that utilities generate or procure 1.5 percent of their power from solar sources by 2020 — a big step up from where the state is now. Under that law, Xcel Energy Inc. has until Monday to tell how the giant electricity provider would like to manage the rollout of the developer-driven gardens, which are neighborhood hubs of solar panels used to generate small amounts of power for the utility.

Rather than relying on people forking over thousands for a few glass panels atop their homes or businesses, gardens will allow them to claim a slice of a bigger solar array through subscriptions. While the electricity produced goes into the general power grid, subscribers get breaks on their monthly bills based on their share of the solar energy that's harnessed.

"Community solar is how we're going to provide this opportunity for the masses. It is the Model T of solarenergy," said Ken Bradley, chief executive of Minnesota Community Solar, an upstart company already cultivating sites and a subscriber base.

It's a concept that has taken hold in other states, mostly out West. Xcel is more than a year into a similar program in Colorado. If all goes as planned, the Minnesota gardens will start cropping up next year.

In an interview Friday, Xcel officials previewed Monday's filing but declined to reveal specific details before it's formally submitted. The company's plan is subject to Public Utilities Commission approval and will dictate how soon the projects ramp up.

Deb Sundin, an Xcel director of renewable strategy and planning, said the company would seek to limit the number of new solar megawatts it accepts every few months to make sure the company's engineering systems can manage the intake and so that gardens that are better developed can get approval more quickly. She said the plan also structures the bill credits available to subscribers. And the company wants assurances that the power produced from the gardens count toward Xcel's solar power mandate rather than be allowed for sale on the open market to companies looking to achieve similar goals.

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