Transition Town: Going solar with the Twin Cities SUN co-op

By Tracy Kugler

I am a geographer at the University of Minnesota and a fan of renewable energy. So when students from the Geographic Information Systems program at the university launched their Minnesota solar suitability analysis, I took notice.

The project provides images showing the solar potential of exact locations throughout the state.

I looked up my home address, expecting good news about our roof in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. Sure enough, our steep, south-facing, almost shade-free roof stood out as a bright yellow patch, like a beacon announcing “put solar here!”

The co-op incentive

We sat on the idea for a while, weighing the investment of time and money needed to move forward. When I saw an article in the Midway Monitor about Solar United Neighbors (SUN) last February, it seemed worth investigating.

SUN is a nonprofit that organizes solar cooperatives around the country, including here in the Twin Cities (see sidebar). Each locally-based co-op gathers 50 to 100 households and businesses that are considering solar arrays.

The co-op solicits group-discounted bids from local solar installers. A committee of co-op members reviews the bids and selects an installer, guided by price, quality, warranty and other factors. The installer works with individual co-op households to prepare site-specific proposals, install the systems and coordinate with the local electric utility to connect the arrays to its grid. There is no fee to join a SUN co-op and members are not obligated to move forward with any stage of the process.

SUN also educates potential members through its website and optional meetings. For example, we learned about Xcel Energy’s net metering system, which measures the flow of electricity in both directions. If your solar system generates more power than you use, Xcel issues you a credit for the surplus.

Considering the group discount, not having to request and evaluate multiple bids on our own and the support of SUN’s national and local organizers, joining the co-op seemed like a great idea. We joined in late February 2021, just before the selection committee chose Solar Farm LLC as the group’s installer.

Solar Farm conducted a site assessment at our home in late March, confirming that our roof was practically ideal for solar, and we received their proposal a couple of weeks later.

The ups and downs of installation

The process hit a bump when we learned that our application to Xcel’s Solar Rewards program was denied; it was already full for the year.

Through this program, Xcel purchases renewable energy credits from homeowners who install solar arrays. Participants receive an additional annual payment, based on the capacity of their array, for 10 years. The Solar Rewards program covers only a set amount of solar capacity each year, and in 2021 it filled up faster than ever.

Still, we decided that, for us, the financial and ecological benefits of getting our installation up and running sooner outweighed the loss of the payments, and we signed our contract in early May.

Our installation in July was quick and unobtrusive. In about 10 hours over two days, a crew installed the rail mounts to hold the panels. The panels were installed in a single day about a week later, and final wiring and connections were completed in a couple of hours some time later.

As anyone who has installed solar in Minnesota recently will tell you, the most bothersome part of the process was waiting, and waiting, for Xcel to review and approve the interconnection agreement. We finally cleared that last hurdle with an Xcel witness test in mid-October. At that point, we were able to turn our system on and start producing energy!

All in all, the process of working with SUN and Solar Farm LLC went smoothly and required minimal work on our part. I would recommend a solar co-op as an option worth considering to anyone planning to install solar for a home or small business. 

Tracy Kugler is a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, Transition Movement enthusiast, mom and resident of Hamline-Midway.

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