Addressing Societal Reluctance to Solar Installations

Above image: Open land surrounding a substation owned by Alliant in Dodgeville, Wisconsin where the company wants to build and own a ~15 acre solar plant and lease panels to customers with a solar credit of only 6.3 cents per kWh.

Residents of Iowa County Wisconsin which are experiencing unprecedented pressure for solar and wind power plants directed my attention to the story, County boundaries become barriers for community solar in Minnesota  by Midwest Energy News. MEN receives considerable funding from merchant power plant developers and new utility “steel in the ground” is very profitable these days. As many citizens get their speciality news from the web-based sources, it is important to notice who is funding the news we read.

Like never before, our dollars as energy customers can be used to either promote massive utility expansions or to expanded Focus on Energy rebates to help customers dramatically cut waste in our homes and businesses and grow power on-site and community owned solar. We are truly at a fork in the spending road. State policies can either acknowledge fair market competition where customers use equal rights and society evolves to a decentralized or “distributed” and right-sized grid or policy promotes states where enormous tracts of land are converted into utility districts.

It is stunning to pause and think that some states will have these huge districts and some will not. There will be very real winners and losers. Utility interests know this and justify billions in public “relations” campaigns that avoid to mention customer rights and economic powers in address of climate change and building our local economies.

This particular story,..  https://energynews.us/2021/03/24/county-boundaries-become-barriers-for-community-solar-in-minnesota/ (cleaned, safe link) is notable because it includes response from the affected public utility, Xcel, and introduces siting difficulties that solar developers are encountering.  As this news outlet is not motivated to reveal these concerns, it suggests the siting issues faced by merchant solar power plant developers are already systemic and politically/economically significant.

An important qualification: The installations the merchant solar developers seek in this story are not “community solar”— that is — the facilities are not owned by the customers or community entities. Instead, Xcel customers lease panels leased from the private solar developers who either own the arrays or sell them to Xcel. The story reveals that the solar credits leasing customers receive are considerably lower than customer panel ownership models. Instead of a ~$15 electric bill, Alliant reports the average bills are only ~60% lower at $51 per mo. 

Clearly, poor customer economics is an obstacle to all solar building and siting compatibilities are also front and center.  In rural parlance, bad deals are resulting from “middleman,” whether a public utility or a third party owner, walking away with too much of the profit. Sadly, the Minnesota law change being considered and promoted by the developers does not look at electric customer ownership opportunities. It would merely further merchant power plant development at disadvantage to Xcel power plant development. The story shows this competition is now occurring over solar installations from about 1 to 50 acres based on a 5 MW cap and land usage from 4 to 10 acres per MW.

Here are some promoted observations:

* City and suburban neighborhoods are resisting 1-50 acre solar installations. Of course, solar needs to occupy open spaces. Lands with greater natural assets have higher cultural and aesthetic value compared lands with industrial build-outs. This understandable, universal reluctance to add infrastructure to landscapes contains a key lesson the story overlooks: state energy policy needs to fully incentivize electric customers who can site more panels without controversy to do so. In most of WI, utilities are allowed to economically cripple installations that produce more power than is used by paying ~.03 per kWh for the produced solar power.  (SOUL discussion of these policies before the PSC of Wisconsin July 2020 and January 2021 ).

* Solar developers are already running low on cost effective locations near substations.  Xcel points out there is still plenty of developable land around the Minneapolis/St Paul urban areas,.. The developers point out their solar arrays are mostly providing power to commercial and industrial customers—areas with a higher concentration of substations.  To be profitable, solar installations must be sized to match local demand, or “load.”  The most-cost effective siting for solar is where the power is used such as a home or business. Midwest Energy News does not represent this constituency. Not surprising, there is already significant competition between utilities (and between customers and both of these utilities) for most cost effective locations near substations.  Ultimately, Xcel owns the substations and can either grant development by another utility or do it themselves.  

* All of the above is consistent with what we are seeing in Wisconsin. Our public utilities are starting to team up with merchant power plant developers to build smaller systems that crowd out home, business and community-owned solar. For example, Alliant has announced it wants to build and own smaller solar installations near its substations in Dodgeville and Baraboo. Power generated by the panels that customers can only lease for a maximum of 20 years is credited at a fixed rate of only 6.3 cents per kWh — only 50% of full retail credit customers would get if ratepayer ownership was allowed. As explained above, there is a limited amount of lowest cost solar that can be added “behind” every substation. Note that Xcel (and other public utilities) suddenly stop complaining about the “high cost” of solar when the utility would own it.

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