A first for Saint-Paul and the State – Twin Cities

It may not seem like much: a solar garden on a hill on the edge of St. Paul’s Railroad Island neighborhood.

But the project – currently under study by the state – is being scrutinized by city and clean energy advocates across the country. For Xcel Energy, it would be the first of its kind: not just because it’s a solar array they would own, but a grid primarily intended for residential properties and serving people who don’t have a lot of money.

Here’s the problem with solar farms: Yes, there are just over half a megawatt, which would be the Railroad Island project. But they’re usually owned and managed by larger business or government entities, rather than Xcel.

It’s because of the way the business model is shaped. These large farms usually require a big commitment from those they are intended for: like a 25-year commitment. Fine for a government entity, but not something landlords – or tenants – are very comfortable with. They usually have their own personal network, rather than relying on a farm.

Then there is real estate.

“A five megawatt farm needs about 40 acres of land,” said Lee Gabler, senior director of customer strategy and solutions for Xcel Energy. “Where do you think these are going?”

Again, large commercial or government entities. And to Gabler’s knowledge, none has responded to a primarily residential clientele.

That’s why the Railroad Island project – enough power for 100 homes on the east side of town – is so important. And why it’s watched by international organizations like the Institute for Sustainable Communities, supporters say.

“It was interesting telling someone in India about it,” said Jim Erchul, head of community housing services for Dayton’s Bluff, who is partnering with the project.

City of St. Paul officials say the residential program is unlike anything else in the city, and Xcel officials couldn’t think of anything comparable statewide, either.

“Do you know how much Saint Paul likes to set rules? They don’t have any rules for it, ”Erchul says with a smile.

PUSHING HARD

Those involved recognize that while the project appears to have serious momentum, there are still plenty of balls in the air.

The basics are as follows: The farm would be built on land adjacent to Erchul’s Rivoli Bluff housing project, on a cliff on the East Side overlooking downtown.

This land has a catch: it was a dumping ground, literally. The city’s street cleaners dumped all their debris there.

It has since been covered with a clean infill approved for recreational use.

“(State pollution inspectors) are right across the street. So it’s very regulated, because they can look at you out the window, ”Erchul said.

Still, the land was confiscated and is now state-owned, with Ramsey County as legal guardian.

In July, the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority voted to try to buy the land, which has a county estimated value of around $ 54,000.

This proposed purchase is still in progress. It remains to be seen whether Erchul’s or Xcel’s non-profit housing would own the land. But Xcel would pay to have a potential solar farm built.

The state utilities commission must also approve. Xcel has filed with them twice, and officials say the process will likely take until the end of the year.

Getting permission is one thing, but there is something else the farm will probably still need.

Customers.

SAVE, ONE WAY OR THE OTHER

One thing about Railroad Island: there are a lot of low income renters. And a lot of old houses.

Which means a lot of unnecessarily high utility bills, for people who can’t afford it. Xcel officials have analyzed the invoices, and they see a big difference: high costs in winter compared to summer. Elsewhere, it is typically the opposite.

Conclusion: baseboards, or electric heating, coupled with people who do not use their air conditioner much in summer.

So Xcel, along with Erchul and a third group, the Energy CENTS Coalition, is hoping to pair the solar park with a massive outreach program in the neighborhood, trying to get people to take advantage of their conservation programs, which provide funding to people in need. low income. residents to improve their efficiency.

“The whole key is to get down and get dirty, to go door to door,” Erchul said.

And, while you’re at it, maybe talk about signing up for the solar farm on the hill.

Jim Erchul, Head of Neighborhood Housing Services for Dayton's Bluff, stands at the Rivoli Bluff site in 2015 (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Jim Erchul, Head of Neighborhood Housing Services for Dayton’s Bluff, stands at the Rivoli Bluff site in 2015 (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

The farm savings wouldn’t be huge, Erchul and Xcel admit: $ 3 to $ 6 a month. But it would be clean energy, and there would be no credit checks, no upfront fees, and no long-term commitments – usually the big hurdles for low-income residents who want to get involved. solar energy.

Legislation passed in 2013 paved the way for community solar farms, requiring Xcel to allow third-party entities that managed these farms to connect to their grid.

The Railroad Island project would be the first such farm owned by Xcel, Gabler said.

The state also concluded that there was a need to improve access to solar power for low-income residents and turned to Xcel to come up with a pilot program to address the issue.

“It’s pretty refreshing,” said Erchul, whose nonprofit has been developing and managing housing for St. Paul’s East Side for decades.

“I’m supposed to hammer them,” Erchul jokes about the big business. “It’s exactly the opposite. They’re the ones asking for a community garden and wanting services for low-income people, and they buy into it, they’re on board, man. It’s just weird. What is happening here?”


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