Large solar energy project remains on Princeton horizon

The Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce hosted speaker Chris Schoenherr, director of external affairs and government relations for the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (SMMPA) at its Aug. 8 meeting to talk about the concept of community solar and give an update on the status of a potential solar-farm project in Princeton.
Schoenherr had visited the Princeton City Council meeting in early April with solar developers MC Power Companies of Kansas City, Missouri. SMMPA and MC Power have been working together to identify an appropriate parcel of land about 23 acres in size in or around Princeton. The companies had been in talks with owners of the land at 9492 Baptist Church Road.
Schoenherr said, “We couldn’t get the land secured for building this year but are still looking.”
He said in a phone call after the meeting that the parcel of land is still a possibility, but the team has been looking at others, too. Schoenherr said there are qualifiers for the land, such as it would have to get full sun, be close to the city and not in a wetland.
Schoenherr said the land deals are not cemented until SMMPA and its developer reach a 25 percent subscription level to the community solar that will be built. He said teams have been marketing the options in Austin, Rochester and St. Peter.
To achieve 25 percent subscription to the future farm, the team needs to sell 2,481 panels. Schoenherr said in a few months’ time, they’ve sold about 262 of those panels. When the subscription level reaches the required number, the land will be bought and building will begin on the community solar farm.
Schoenherr said sometimes a landowner finds a viable buyer before the solar developer is ready to buy. He said if that happens, the team will seek other land near Princeton. Once begun, construction of the solar farm would take three-to-six months.
MC Power plans to build a 3.0 megawatt facility with 11,232 solar panels of 335 watts each, along with four 750-kilowatt solar inverters and two transformers. Schoenherr called it a “pretty good-sized” facility. Subscribers to community solar pay upfront costs and then see credits on their bill.
At the April Princeton City Council meeting, MC Power said the local farm would be one that tracks with the sun and follows its east-to-west motion. The facility would be secured with a fence and consist of rows of solar panels.
The solar energy generated in Princeton could be purchased by people all over the state. Each community and their associated power companies decide whether to offer a community solar or some kind of renewable energy program and if so, how to administer it. Each community works their program differently.
Schoenherr and Princeton Public Utility Manager Connie Wangen filled in people’s memories about a 5 megawatt community solar farm that was slated to get built in Princeton a few years ago. The solar developer went out of business before construction could start, and the 5 megawatt plant was built in Owatonna. Community solar concept
Schoenherr said Princeton is one of the 18 communities with which the SMMPA works on all kinds of energy issues including community solar farms. There are a number of renewable-energy initiatives to be met at future intervals with a combination of solar, wind and methane gas.
The renewable portfolio works toward various federal, state and local initiatives such as the federal government’s goal to derive 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by the year 2025. A total of 29 states, as well as many utility companies, have adopted a renewable-energy portfolio and goals.
Schoenherr and Wangen said Princeton does not have a community solar program through which people could subscribe, but it’s under consideration.
Schoenherr said, “Connie and the commission will want to hear from people that they want this in order to put a program in place.”
If and when the city adopted a community solar program, people could opt to participate in it or not. While many renewable programs were subsidized at first, Schoenherr said most programs now do not include a subsidy.
At the recent Chamber presentation, Schoenherr answered questions. He said the community-solar option fits for many people because it’s more feasible than rooftop or ground-mounted solar.
People ask if the energy they buy comes from the solar panels directly to their home, but it does not. All the energy is returned to the main power grid and then distributed to homes.
“And the concept here is that you’re prepaying for a certain amount of electricity we expect to get from these panels,” Schoenherr said.
Generally, shorter-term subscription commitments to renewable energy carry more upfront cost than a longer-term commitment to solar.
A chamber-audience member asked what the financial benefits of solar are. Schoenherr said that the cost increase on panels each year is about two percent, which most people realize is less than annual increases for traditional power.
He said the motivation of many in subscribing to solar power is a desire to contribute to the renewable energy effort because of its environmental benefits. For example, solar energy prevents the generation of millions of pounds of carbon.
Wangen and Schoenherr confirmed that while Princeton utility customers do not currently have the option to subscribe to community solar, any customers can arrange to buy green energy through PPU since SMMPA offers it and Princeton is one of SMMPA’s members.