Community solar garden captures innovation award for Moorhead, Minnesota

Moorhead Public Service You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MPS), based in Minnesota, recently received the Energy Innovator Award from American Public Power Association You are leaving WAPA.gov. for giving residents what they want: clean solar power.

Moorhead Public Service installed its community solar garden near its first renewable energy systems, two wind turbines.

Moorhead Public Service installed its community solar garden near its first renewable energy systems, two wind turbines. (Photo by Moorhead Public Service)

The award-winning, 40-kilowatt (kW) Capture the Sun Community Solar Garden went online in 2015, after public outreach indicated strong support for more solar options. Moorhead customers pay for the power output of one of the 144 non-rotating, photovoltaic (PV) panels that make up the array. The value of the energy generated by the panels is prorated annually in the form of bill credits to participating customers. MPS is responsible for ongoing maintenance and delivering the energy to subscribers’ homes and businesses.

“The point of the gardens is to allow people who don’t have the ability to have solar panels at their home, to help feed solar energy into the grid,” said MPS Energy Services Manager Dennis Eisenbraun. “That fits the criteria for the Energy Innovator Award very well.”

The award recognizes utility programs that demonstrate advances in the development or application of creative, energy-efficient techniques or technologies. Judges also look for programs that improve service to electric customers or projects that increase the efficiency of utility operations or resource efficiency. Transferability and project scope in relation to utility size are also considered. APPA presented the award during its annual National Conference in June in Phoenix, Arizona.

Keeping customers satisfied
Although support for clean energy—especially the home-grown kind—is strong among consumers, many homes and businesses are not in the position, literally or figuratively, to install solar. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about three-quarters of all buildings are not suitable for a solar array due to shading, roof orientation, structural issues and other concerns.

Shared solar, however, has the potential to greatly increase consumer access to solar PV, a fact not lost on MPS customers. “We did an initial survey to gauge customer interest last year, and then held a couple of public meetings,” Eisenbraun recalled. “Finally, we sent out a mass mailing seeking a commitment to the project and there was an overwhelming positive response.”

Moorhead residents, utility employees, city officials and contractors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Capture the Sun, Oct. 6, 2015. MPS is planning a ceremony for the second phase of the solar garden this coming October.

Moorhead residents, utility employees, city officials and contractors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Capture the Sun, Oct. 6, 2015. MPS is planning a ceremony for the second phase of the solar garden this coming October. (Photo by Moorhead Public Utilities)

Capture the Sun quickly attracted more subscribers than it had panels to accommodate them. “We knew before we finished building the 2015 project that it was only going to be ‘Phase One,’” said Eisenbraun. “Between the waiting list and a second mass mailer sent earlier this year, we had enough support to go ahead with another array in 2016.”

Poised for success
The second phase of Capture the Sun will be fully subscribed when it goes online this fall. MPS is planning a public dedication, Oct. 4, during Public Power Week.

The success of the solar garden is not surprising, given that Moorhead residents are already familiar with the concept of community renewable energy development. MPS built two wind turbines, one in 1999 and another in 2001, and more than 800 customers signed up to support the Capture the Wind program with a small green power tariff on their monthly electricity bills. “Our first foray into renewable energy was a resounding success,” Eisenbraun acknowledged. “The turbines were a great public relations tool and they reached payback in just 11 years, four years ahead of schedule.”

Going local
Like the wind turbines, Capture the Sun is a distinctly local project that keeps control in the community and the economic benefits within the region. MPS self-financed the solar garden with a combination of subscriptions and funds shifted from its renewable system incentive program. “We didn’t have as many individual customers installing systems as we hoped,” explained Eisenbraun. “So instead of leaving that money on the table, we decided to use it to give our customers another option.” A very popular option, as it turned out.

Solar installers from Enterprise Sales mount PV panels on a rack. The project brought attention--and business--to the regional construction company.

Solar installers from Enterprise Sales mount PV panels on a rack. The project brought attention–and business–to the regional construction company. (Photo by Moorhead Public Service)

MPS also chose Enterprise Sales Co. You are leaving WAPA.gov. from nearby Valley City, North Dakota, to build the project. The website states that Enterprise is “more than a contractor,” but Eisenbraun was surprised to learn that the company builds solar arrays. “I was only familiar with them as grain bin builders,” he admitted. “But they came in with the best price and their project manager worked everything out to the finest detail.”

At Moorhead Public Service, bringing recognition to a local business, self-financing community renewables projects and giving customers what they want is not so much about innovation as it is about doing the right thing. “We didn’t build Capture the Sun because of any mandates,” Eisenbraun pointed out. “We did it because it was a great idea and our customers thought so, too.”

And that kind of thinking deserves an award.