Putting their faith in solar gardens

Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light seeks to connect congregations with solar arrays

Speaking at Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light headquarters in Whittier, the Rev. Riz Prakasim of New Life Presbyterian Church in Roseville framed increased access to clean energy as a moral issue. Credit: Dylan Thomas

WHITTIER — Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light is seeking developers willing to partner with area congregations on community solar garden projects.

With local faith leaders and solar energy developers in attendance, the nonprofit issued a request for proposals Wednesday at a press conference inside their Whittier headquarters. MNIPL plans to recruit community solar garden subscribers through faith groups and then work with developers to find sites for solar arrays and craft subscription models that make it easier for low-income residents to participate.

“The sun doesn’t just shine on … one set of people,” Jamez Staples, president and CEO of Renewable Energy Partners, a solar installation company, said. “The sun shines on everyone.”

Community solar gardens are shared solar arrays that potentially offer subscribers much cheaper access to solar energy than would adding panels to their own yards or homes. The Solar Energy Jobs Act signed into state law by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2013 required Xcel Energy to purchase the energy produced by community solar gardens, opening the door to their development in the state.

Terry Hokenson, co-chair of the MNIPL solar team, framed the project as both an environmental and social justice initiative. The aim is to widen access to clean energy beyond those who can afford to install their own solar panels by growing solar gardens in “communities that have been too long neglected,” Hokenson said.

Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, the general manager of solar developer Cooperative Energy Futures, said meeting that goal will require “innovative” financing models. Participating in a community solar garden must be “easy and low-risk,” with low up-front costs and subscriptions spread out in monthly payments, DenHerder-Thomas said.

MNIPL Executive Director Julie Nerbonne said the organization is still working to identify potential sites for the first solar gardens but may have an announcement soon.