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Seeds of solar power 'gardens' being planted in Minnesota

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A new state law encouraging the growth of alternative energy sources has spurred several proposals to create solar power "gardens" in Minnesota, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

The law, which was enacted last year, allows independent businesses and groups to set up arrays of solar panels and then sell the power directly to local customers.

Such arrangements would allow consumers to purchase solar power without having to install solar panels on their homes.

One plan in the works calls for installing some 4,000 solar panels on a 5-acre plot of land in Washington County. The developer, Able Energy Co. of River Falls, Wis., says the panels could generate up to 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power 140 homes, according to the Pioneer Press. Able Energy has plans to set up four solar fields.

The company is currently taking subscriptions in Washington County, said Ben Ganje, a company spokesman.

"We feel it's important to be close to the community that is buying the power," said Ganje.

Ganje said the company is negotiating to buy sites in Woodbury and Lake Elmo and is considering additional sites in Afton and other locations. Ganje said the cost for the garden would be $2 million, not including the land.

Another solar field is being planned in Minneapolis by MN Community Solar, according to the Pioneer Press. The 40-kilowatt array is going to be installed on the rooftop of Northern Sun Merchandising on Lake Street in Minneapolis, and should be online in the fall, according to spokesman David Wakely. The power has been 100 percent presold, he added.

Xcel Energy has its own plans to build much larger solar fields, the Pioneer Press reports. Xcel is seeking bids for proposals to generate 150 megawatts, which could come from one large field or several small ones, according to Xcel spokeswoman Patti Nystuen.

The company wants to build those fields somewhere in the Midwest, and they would be in operation by late 2016, according to the newspaper.

Xcel has been successful with such solar arrays in Colorado, and expects the program would also do well in Minnesota.

Before the Able Energy solar garden can be planted, it must be approved by local officials in Washington County, and most local zoning codes don't cover solar arrays, the Pioneer Press reports.

Small-scale solar rooftop installations sometimes get a cool reception, because some homeowners say they hurt property values.

Ben Ganje said the solar gardens shouldn't generate the same kind of opposition because they'll be installed on land that is not currently in use, and the panels will be close to the ground.

Able Energy is now taking subscriptions from customers --basically a commitment to buy the solar power. The price of the power will be locked in for 20 years, and Ganje said he expects customers will save money over the life of the contract.

The company is holding an informational meeting about its proposed solar garden on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Central Park Library in Woodbury.

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