Author Archives: Parker Lindo

Community Solar Gardens: The Basics

Solar energy isn’t just for rooftops anymore. With community solar, tenants and building owners now have access to solar energy, regardless of their roof’s characteristics or available capital. It’s more than monthly savings on electricity – it’s a leap toward increased renewable energy access, economic benefit to rural communities, and a reduced carbon footprint.

 

How Does Community Solar Work?

Community Solar gardens are off-site solar arrays that produce energy sent to the electric grid. They’re similar to power plants, producing energy away from the end-user but are typically less than 5 MW in electrical capacity. (Enough energy to power roughly 542 homes per year.)


Community Solar Gardens (CSG’s) are often found in rural areas on parcels of leased land that are not currently being used for agriculture. These locations are optimal for solar energy production, and the duration of the lease allows the land to naturally replenish nutrients for future crops. During installation a pollinator-friendly seed mix is planted in order to provide a habitat for native bees, butterflies and other wildlife. CSGs can be completed with little impact on current operations and require little to no maintenance. When the lease is up, the equipment is removed and the land is returned to the owner unharmed.

 

What are the Benefits of Community Solar?

  • The need for building ownership, ideal roof conditions, and approval from local agencies is eliminated for people that want solar energy. 
  • More people have access to the benefits of renewable energy. 
  • landowners can diversify their income streams without investing any overhead.
  • Local economies benefit from the additional income generated from, and saved by, the leasing and subscription to CSG’s.

 

How do I Get Started?

Many utility companies have programs available, allowing you to subscribe to a CSG. A community solar subscription allows you to use a portion of the energy produced, with savings applied as credits to your monthly bill. If you’re a landowner and you think your parcel might be a good location for a solar site, you can contact a solar developer. 


Whether you’re interested in hosting a CSG or looking for a subscription plan that fits your needs, Impact Power Solutions is here to assist your renewable energy transition. 

 

The Way to Undo Systemic Racism is by Aligning our Interests

Author: Ralph Jacobson

It took a meeting with a union organizer and our eight crew members to open my eyes as to how my crew’s narratives about the world differed from mine.

As an electrical contractor, I am a signatory to the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) contract, I had recruited and hired these men for my company from the Black community to install solar arrays.  I was planning to organize each of them into the electrical apprenticeship program which would get them started on careers as electricians. Solar installation has been deemed electrical work by the Minnesota Board of Electricity, so being an electrician gives access to a lot of work in this field.

But one after another, each one said, “I don’t want to spend five years of my life being ordered around by middle-aged white electricians. No thanks!” As that sunk in, I realized that to them, this pathway looked like indentured servitude, of which generations of Black people have experienced too much. “Been fooled before, not this time!” This was my rude awakening to the narrative that they carry, and some darned good direct feedback!

My story about trade unions begins with my grandfather, who was the first business agent of the Ironworkers Local #512 when it was organized under the AFL-CIO in the 1930’s. Following him, my dad and my uncles all made careers in ironwork. They had good jobs, solidly blue-collar middle class. Then  what was up with the members of the installation team? Didn’t a union electrical career look good to them? A friend from the Northside clued me in: up until the 1930’s, contractors up north would sometimes hire skilled Black workers from down south for lower wages. The narrative the members of the installation team brought into the conversation is that the trade unions were organized to keep Black workers out. 

These men  took pride in their work; and loved that they were making a difference in the world. A lot of the work of installing solar panels is actually skilled labor work and not electrical, but it is all covered under the union contract. So now I was in trouble with the union because I had hired non-union workers who were not interested in the path to membership that was offered. I began to wonder if there are any alternatives – what about a laborer’s union track? Again, each one said, “I could do that.” A white guy might not catch the difference: it would seem like a parallel role, not a subservient one, to the electrical work. 

There has been talk for a while about creating a “construction electrician” track for just this purpose. This has met with resistance from the rank and file electricians because they don’t want to give up work that they and their forerunners fought for. I don’t find that to be unreasonable – most electricians have seen times when work was scarce. 

It is not my intention to start blaming the union or anybody else, but here is a situation that clearly illustrates the difficulty of rooting out systemic racial bias, once we go from setting a broad intention, to actually digging down and finding that root to pull out. We find that there is no one person or rule to go after, but a whole lot of reasonable people just doing their jobs. However, we are up against attitudes on all sides, and each one has some history to reckon with. 

Systemic racism is so pervasive in our society that most of us find it impossible to find a way to get started on that kind of work. We each have a lot of work to do in the circles that we operate in, where we can have an impact. Thinking about where attitudes come from may give us a pathway to solutions, like the little piece of yarn sticking out of the sweater, that you pull on and the knitted structure starts to unravel. An attitude that makes me not want to share comes from a place of fear and anxiety, even if one’s family has been blessed with having enough for generations. The fear is vestigial, but it runs deep, and it can influence our behavior towards other people. Helping someone soften that kind of an attitude usually can’t be done in one swift move, it takes time. I was reminded by a friend who works in a factory that when people who were different from each other, worked side-by-side, they got to know each other. Their attitudes softened as they became real people in each other’s eyes. 

A potential way out of my impasse came up recently, when I received a call from an officer at a large electrical company, which is a union shop. He wanted to get some insight about why the union shops are not getting much market share in the burgeoning solar industry. We had a chance to discuss some economic realities, that perhaps having higher-paid electricians doing all of the labor work on a solar installation is pricing them out of the market. We agreed that if he could support the creation of a construction electrician track, his pricing could be more competitive, and his electricians would see  more work in the solar field. 

This change could show up to the electricians as an opportunity for new work, and not as a need to give up some work. It could make it easier for some union members to soften their attitudes, because their interest in solar work would align with the creation of a track under the union contract that would be more acceptable to a group of people that the members of the installation team spoke for. I find it encouraging to think that the interests of these two groups could be aligned, and I view this is an example of where the real work needs to be done in order to move from well-stated intentions to actually taking down oppressive barriers to full participation of Black people in the economy.

We’re not there yet, but there is already a lesson in this for me. If we can find a way to align the interests for all of those involved, so that change shows up as opportunity, more people may be willing to look beyond their deeply emotional attitudes, and work together to undo structures that exclude or reduce opportunity for people based on the outdated notion of “race”. We can find ways to align our interests in such a way that everyone can benefit.

[Ralph Jacobson (ralphj@ips-solar.com) is the Founder of IPS Solar and Chief Innovation Officer of IPS Development, a 30-year solar development company in Roseville, Minnesota, and was the founding Board Chair of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.]

Net Metering: What is it & why does it Matter?

What is Net Metering?

Net metering allows solar system owners to send extra energy they produce into the power grid. So if the system produces more than what they use, the energy sent into the grid is credited. Basically meaning their electric meter runs in reverse. 

 

But Don’t be Fooled.

The promise of earning additional income from the practice is nearly a myth. While it provides FANTASTIC credits & savings to your bill, your system usually won’t produce more than you use.

 

Why is it Important?

  • Firstly, it allows you to save more on utility bills with clean energy.
  • Secondly, it increases the amount of energy that the utility grid receives from renewable sources. 
  • Thirdly, it protects the power grid, allowing utilities to better manage peak loads.
  • Lastly, it increases clean energy demand, creating jobs. 

 

A Brief History of Net Metering

Beginning in the late ’70s, Steven Strong installed 2 solar systems, but he forgot to tell the utility company that his system fed excess power into the power grid.

Fortunately, it all worked, and as a result, several officials from the state and utility company were invited to the grand opening of the projects. As a result of hearing the state officials applaud Strong’s innovation, the utility company ultimately shared their praise. 

After a very positive PR response, clean energy companies across the US adopted the practice. Later on, Strong won several awards from federal agencies and was dubbed “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine. 

 

US States/territories with Net Metering Laws

In our home state of Minnesota, clients are only billed for their net usage. When excess energy is generated during the day, the utility company has to pay the market rate when crediting their bill.

Source: (Solar Power Worlddsireusa.org)

 

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  • Alaska
  • American Samoa
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Guam
  • Iowa
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  • Maine
  • Maryland

 

  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
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  • Oregon
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  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Washington, D.C.
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Impact Power Solutions is happy to provide solar development services in Minnesota and across the Midwest. If you’re ready to start saving with solar, feel free to contact us or get a quote.  Being the #1 solar developer in the Midwest, our process has constantly improved for over 25 years to meet your needs. 

Meet Saint Paul’s Largest Commercial Solar Array

On August 4, 2020, in partnership with Impact Power Solutions, Vomela unveiled its new solar-powered corporate headquarters in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Who Does the Commercial Solar Array Belong to?

Vomela is known for transforming ideas into memorable brand experiences through print media, offering a full spectrum of services to companies ranging from major retailers to local businesses since 1947. The industry leader moved to their new 300,000 square foot headquarters in the East Side of St. Paul in 2019, and regularly contributes to sustainability and making an impact

What Impact Will the Commercial Solar Array make on the Environment?

The 3,408 panels will produce roughly 1,600,000 kWh per year, enough to power 131 average Minnesota homes. Over 30 years the solar panel system will offset nearly 36,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of adding over 44,000 acres of trees to our forests.

  • 3,408 Panels
  • 1.3 Megawatt System Size
  • 2,400,000 Lbs of Co2 Offset Per Year
  • 1,483 Acres of Forest Preserved Per Year
  • 1,606,500 Killawatt Hours Generated Per Year

 

“It’s good news for our environment, it’s good news for our children, it’s good news for our lungs, and it’s good news for our future.” –Melvin Carter, Mayor of Saint Paul

Why Did Vomela Choose Solar Energy?

Making the decision to move forward with a commercial solar array isn’t always an easy one, but for Vomela, the decision just made sense.

“Where many companies used to ask “Why solar?”, the answer has become “Why not?”

The decision to make the switch to solar allowed Vomela to take another step toward sustainability, save thousands in their overhead costs, and allowed everyone to feel involved in making an impact on climate change. 

Congratulations, The Vomela Companies!

“Vomela has also been a great partner, and very smart about energy. They understand that solar makes them more competitive. Working with visionary teams like Vomela typically leads to successful outcomes.” – Eric Pasi

From the project’s inception to completion, it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with our partners at Vomela. We’re always happy to be a resource to help companies realize the potential of commercial solar for their business, and to build a better future by providing access to renewable energy.

If you’re ready to make an impact on the environment and your overhead costs, visit our projects page to learn more and get a quote today to get started.

Impact Power Solutions Ranked top 10 Solar Developer in the US

What is the Top Solar Contractor’s List?

Curated by Solar Power World, the Top Solar Contractors list is made to showcase the work of solar installers and developers of all sizes. The list is determined by the number of kilowatts installed by a solar energy company in the previous year, divided into categories by the type of service the top solar contractor provides, regions, and states.

From the Curators of the Top Solar Contractor’s List

“The Solar Power World team is so pleased to highlight more than 400 companies on the 2020 Top Solar Contractors list, especially during this unprecedented time,” said Kelsey Misbrener, senior editor of Solar Power World. “All contractors featured on the 2020 list reported strong 2019 installation numbers and are continuing to stand tall this year.”

Top Solar Contractors Continue To Strive For Recovery

Despite COVID-19 being the immediate issue for the world to address, reducing carbon emissions to aid in climate change remains a top priority that affects all of us. 


The top solar contractors that made the list, the people we work with, and the communities we live in are all facing obstacles that have never been seen before. Q1 showed the largest amount of solar capacity ever installed in the United States, adding 3.6 GW of solar capacity. The force of these challenges emerged in Q2, with forecasts of 25% and 38% decreases in year to year volumes in 2020. 


Regardless of the turbulence faced in these uncertain times, solar energy is still effective in combating greenhouse gas emissions as an alternative to fossil fuels, and will continue to aid in efforts for economic recovery

Our Take On Being A Top Solar Contractor

We’re thrilled to announce that we are the #1 solar developer in the Midwest, among the top 10 commercial solar developers in the US, and grateful to be a part of Solar Power World’s Top Solar Contractors list for the 8th consecutive year.

 

In the 29 years since our founding, we have never faced challenges like the ones we see today. We extend our deepest thanks to our employees, clients, and community for making the installation of 29,784 kilowatts of solar capacity possible, and for the positive impact we’ve made on the environment together. 

The Pathway to Larger-Scale Solar in Minnesota – Part 4

The Pathway to Larger-Scale Solar in MN

Community Benefits and Distributed Solar (Part 4)

Author: Ralph Jacobson


DG Solar is a nimbler non-wires alternative

A recent article in the New York Times documents the organized public opposition to utility-scale solar farms in upstate and western New York. That state has created some very effective incentives to attract big solar development, but there is no agreement among the public about how much solar is too much, and which landscapes are right for big solar arrays in the first place. This is a hard fight that’s heating up, not just about what we value besides money and property rights, but who has a voice in those decisions. 


We have seen similar fights in Minnesota about wind farms, and it won’t be too long before bigger solar is caught up in the fray. Several counties, townships, and cities have declared moratoria on any further permitting of the one-megawatt sized CSG, which occupies a ten-acre parcel of land. What kind of opposition will arise when the locals are asked to approve solar arrays which occupy several square miles of nearby land? Public attitudes toward larger-scale solar are driven by unrealistic expectations due to seeing miniaturization in most electronics. Unfortunately, the solar resource is extensive: if you want ten times more solar power, you have to deploy ten times more area in solar. 


As we shape the market for bigger solar arrays, we would do well to position DG solar as a smaller and nimbler alternative to the truly utility-scale solar. When sited to provide multiple local benefits, as discussed below, it can be more acceptable to locals and require a shorter development timeline. DG solar can play a key role as a non-wire alternative (NWA) to help minimize the overbuilding of distribution infrastructure.


Sacrificing System Efficiency for Economics of Scale

In a 2005 article, “Critical Thinking About Energy: the case for decentralized generation of electricity,” Thomas R. Casten and Brennan Downes show that electric power industry efficiency peaked at about 65% back in 1910, and decreased to 33% by 1960, where it has remained. The drive to lower the cost per megawatt of generation, by building bigger plants to harness the economies of scale, did not result in greater efficiency. Quite the opposite: in 1910, plants were much smaller and located near thermal loads which could utilize the “waste” heat as combined heat and power (CHP). By 1960, large coal-plants were situated nearer to coal fields and further from cities, and the heat was devalued and wasted as an acceptable loss. 


Keeping city air cleaner and economies of scale were valid reasons for building coal plants far from population centers and their loads. Following that trend, utility-scale solar is far from loads, as we see the largest solar plants built in desert areas. As mentioned above, ground-mounted arrays do take up a significant amount of land, and much of that land in Minnesota is considered prime agricultural land. This might be the toughest of a handful of issues to wrestle with in determining how much of the solar build-out should be DG solar and not utility-scale. A more complex web of issues may pull much of the expected deployment closer to towns and cities.

 

Land use issues

As was true for coal power plants, the further we build large solar arrays from cities and major loads, the more we have to overbuild them to make up for more line losses through the wires. In the US, large power plants must burn up to 15% more fuel to overcome just the transmission line losses. Because DG solar is closer to loads, it is inherently more efficient, and as a bonus its smaller footprint may result in fewer land use battles. Battles over land use can drag on for years and could become a major impediment to the solar contribution toward clean energy targets at 2030 and 2050. It would also make matters easier if we could move away from the single-use approach to land use. There would be more public support for putting solar arrays on prime ag land if the solar could be providing other benefits to a local community, as well. 


Don’t boil DG solar down to commodity electrons

There is a false dichotomy underlying the discussion about the economics of utility-scale versus DG solar that must be addressed in order to do serious planning. Anyone who was watching attempts at solar legislation at the Minnesota Legislature in 2019 saw the utility narrative make a stark U-turn from past years. Where previously the claims were that “solar is too expensive, so we shouldn’t be spending money on it” the message morphed into “utility-scale solar is so much cheaper, why do anything else?” As we saw in the last century around ever-bigger coal plants, that argument works if the only consideration is the cost of generating a flow of electrons, and other multiple benefits are cast aside as having little value. But little value to whom, as we consider it in the context of land use?


Aligning solar with multiple community benefits

The methodology for calculating the Value of Solar tariff includes the social cost of carbon, which utilities have balked at including in the rate structure because solar provides a benefit to the broader community, not just their customers. But it may be much more fruitful to consider this in the context of DG solar: to identify a variety of more specific public benefits, creating a pathway to monetizable value not paid by a commodity electron. 


This would be similar to the concept of renewable energy certificates, or RECs, which can be separated from the tariff with other funding mechanisms. In recognizing that environmental benefits have a value in allowing prime agricultural land to be used for solar, there is an implicit opportunity to monetize some of that value to help overcome the extra cost of DG solar arrays above utility-scale costs, to help make DG solar financeable. We could also go the other direction and apply disincentives to utility-scale solar to address the loss of opportunity to use solar to meet such public or societal benefits.


Identifying other public benefits

Aware that aggressive solar policies are getting pushback in mature markets like that in upstate New York State, Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute is organizing a campaign of “Siting Partnerships” to build broad public support for use-cases in which solar arrays that are ground-mounted on agricultural lands would align with an environmental benefit. The campaign will enable the solar industry and the utilities to link arms with municipalities and other stakeholders to create site-specific agreements where deployment of solar arrays on prime agricultural lands can be defended. In each of five use cases identified, the landowner will benefit from payments for the use of their land, this aligns their interests with the solar deployment:


Protection of municipal water supplies
Siting appropriately designed, vegetated solar installations on Drinking Water Management Supply Areas and Wellhead Protection Areas currently under agricultural production.

Watershed protection 
Siting strategically designed solar arrays in impacted watersheds to serve as infiltration areas or buffer areas to limit non-point pollution.

Carbon sequestration 
Solar development designed to maximize ground cover or buffer areas to sequester carbon in the soil. Minnesota farmland has an enormous potential to help reverse the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere by building up black dirt.

Habitat protection 
Solar development designed to buffer critical habitat core areas and limit opportunities for development that would degrade habitat functions (pollinator-friendly, for example).

Buffer against unchecked urban sprawl
Use solar development to discourage sprawling development patterns, limit infrastructure expansion, and protect areas designated as having rural character.


Utility locational benefit plus community benefits

Although this will not explicitly favor DG solar over utility-scale, the opportunities for both will be quite literally “all over the map,” as communities cultivate local awareness and support. Any community benefits of solar arrays will be location-specific, as determined by the communities themselves. This can augment the work already being done under the Mn PUC Docket #13-867 to identify locations where solar arrays (as non-wires alternatives) could be electrically beneficial to the power distribution system. 


DG Solar Plays to the Modernized “Smart Grid”

In the electric power grid of today, power flows in one direction: from remote central station generators to the cities and towns where the loads are; utility-scale solar follows this model. DG Solar, on the other hand, can fit with the network architecture of the modernized grid, where power flows whichever direction is needed on the wires from local generation points to provide power for loads in the area. Every device will have an IP address identifier for communication and balance of power flows around the network. In this context, DG solar is considered as a distributed energy resource (DER), along with demand response, energy storage, efficiency measures and other non-wires upgrades to the electric power system.


Are we trying to pack too much into a DG solar tariff?

Larger-scale solar will have fewer non-utility players: contract guidelines may be more useful than tariffs. A tariff is a standardized contract, approved by the Public Utilities Commission for offer to the general public. Under net metering and CSGs, potential users of the tariff are mostly utility customers who wish to self-generate or subscribe to a CSG; they may number in the hundreds of thousands. 


However, DG solar developers will likely number in the dozens and will be working in a more complex market. While selling energy or through a PPA, the system owner might simultaneously be aggregating multiple solar and storage installations to participate in the wholesale power market, or be selling community benefits. This means that contracts must be useful to several participating entities and dovetail with other transactions which may be involved in making a financing scheme viable, and a tariff need only represent one piece of the cash flow. 

Where there are specific locational or functional benefits, or other income streams involved, the particular benefit or function may determine location, contract terms and conditions, and even which utility will be involved. 


The 4th market bucket of DG solar in 2050

By 2050, as little as 10% and as much as 60% of total solar deployment in Minnesota could be in that 4th market bucket. How much DG solar actually is deployed will depend heavily on how we go about shaping the market for it. Because locational and community environmental benefits will play key roles in making DG solar financeable, much of the opportunity is across the state in municipal and cooperative utility service territories. And we will need the support of utilities and municipalities to deploy bigger solar arrays on prime ag land. 


The “tried and true” strategy of asking the legislature and/or the regulators to make the utilities pay higher tariff rates for DG solar, will only reach the investor-owned utilities, and they will fight that. This will only get us a little past that 10% mark. To reach the lightly regulated coops and munis, and gain their support for a larger statewide market, we must limit how much we try to pack into DG tariffs. More effort must then be put into creating linkages with capital sources to monetize environmental benefits and unlocking the market for grid benefits with the addition of energy storage to the electric power system. 

– Ralph Jacobson, July 2020


Next: Energy Storage Will Enable Higher Solar Deployment