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Agreement between Xcel, developers limits size of community solar gardens

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Community solar garden developers that want to offer energy to Minnesotans through Xcel Energy's solar program will now have to limit the size and output of their installation.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved a proposal Thursday that would cap the solar garden projects at five solar gardens per company, with each garden outputting up to 1 megawatt of energy, MPR reports.

So what does this mean and where is it coming from?

It all stems from an Xcel Energy program called the Solar Rewards Community.

The program was given the OK by state lawmakers in 2013, the Star Tribune explains, as a way to offer solar power to Minnesotans who can't (or don't want to) install solar panels on their property.

Instead, companies build these solar gardens that connect to Xcel Energy's grid, and Xcel will pay for that energy. An Xcel customer can then sign up for the Solar Rewards Community program, and they'll receive a discount on their monthly bill.

But the flood of interest and scope of some of the solar garden plans had Xcel concerned, Green Tech Media reports.

If all the projects were approved at their current size, it would have cost Xcel $2 billion over the life of the program, said Laura McCarten, regional vice president for Xcel.

Xcel started taking applications for the program in December of 2014, and as of Thursday had received more than 1,000 applications, according to statistics on its website.

Some projects aimed to produce 1,000 megawatts, McCarten said, and the cost of buying all that energy would have been passed to Xcel customers, McCarten said, according to MPR.

Over the past few months, Xcel has been meeting with developers to find a compromise, Midwest Energy News reports, and the proposal approved by the Public Utilities Commission Thursday is the result.

In its request to the commission, submitted Monday, Xcel called the compromise "a reasonable balance between encouraging the development of solar gardens ... and protecting the interests of all our customers, regardless of their participation in this program."

The agreement applies retroactively to all projects, so some will need to be scaled down dramatically from the initial plans.

Andrew Moratzka, and attorney for solar developers, told the Star Tribune it could paint Minnesota as an unreliable place to do business, since the agreement forces a number of companies to change their plans.

Still, MCCarten said the ruling allows Minnesota to pursue one of the largest community solar garden programs in the country.

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