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Making energy more accessible

MPU set to build city's first community solar garden

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July 26, 2023

MANITOWOC – Though solar panels have a variety of benefits – such as saving money and withstanding different climates – the installation and upfront price can make obtaining them inaccessible.

So, what if you could receive solar power without actually having the panels on your roof?

David England, power supply analyst for Manitowoc Public Utilities (MPU), said the company is working to make solar energy more easy, efficient and accessible to those in the city. 

MPU recently announced it is building a community solar garden, something England said MPU has “talked about for years.”

“We had a number of conversations that started interlinking,” he said. “We were talking with the city about potential sites. They had some property that had limited other uses, and it seemed like a good opportunity to use it for a community solar garden… We’ve been working on and talking about it for three or four years I would say.” 

The solar generation facility will be located off Hecker Road in Manitowoc at the city’s abandoned gravel pit, which England said is a brownfield site – an area of land that was once occupied by a permanent structure that is now underutilized.

“It’s a site that couldn’t really be used for lots of other things,” he said. “It’s a good reuse of a property that has limited utility otherwise.”

How it works
As of right now, England said the site for the community solar garden has been cleared, and the panels are currently in storage containers on the land.

The service extension line has also been constructed, but England said there are a few things MPU is waiting on before work can begin.

“There’s some engineering being done,” he said. “The racking subcontractor is getting things lined up. The goal is to have something online and operational this year if at all possible.”

England said the beginning steps of the planning process included deciding how many kilowatts (kW) they wanted the garden to be – which they landed on 1,000 kW – and send it to the Public Service Commission (PSC) for approval.

Then, after getting a feel for who would be interested, England said MPU received an “outstanding, totally unexpected” response from the public.

“We have basically 150% capacity of the project sitting on the waitlist, slightly over that,” he said. “We haven’t taken subscriptions yet because the project isn’t online. But we told folks, ‘you can raise your hand and get on the waiting list’… We’ll start at the top of the list and work our way down until the project is fully subscribed. So this way, you can reserve your place in line, no obligation, that sort of thing.”

With such a large positive response, England said MPU has reached out to PSC to adjust the amount of kW they could receive approval for.

“We have gone back to the Public Service Commission to ask (for)… a 1,500 kW system rather than 1,000 so we could accommodate more of the waiting list.”

Even with a potential increase, England said they would still have folks on the waiting list.

The solar panels will be set up at an abandoned gravel pit in Manitowoc on Hecker Road. Photo Courtesy of Manitowoc Public Utilities

“We have about 1,600 kilowatts worth of estimated demand sitting on that waiting list,” he said. “The rapidity with which it started growing was amazing.”

However, since the solar community project is to be finished by the end of the year, England said if they don’t receive approval in time for 1,500 kW, MPU will stick with the 1,000 kW project.

Once the community solar garden is built, England said the tariff will be open to any MPU customer.

However, since there is a 20 kW cap per customer, England said it may not be the best choice for larger industrial companies.

“The economics work better for residential and small businesses because the credit is for your tariff energy rate,” he said. 

Troy Adams, general manager for MPU, said the company is looking at a potential second project down the road that would work better for industrial businesses.

“We’re going to have to figure out what the next project is that would also work for industrial and commercial customers,” he said.

If someone decides they no longer wish to be a part of the project – which is set for 20 years – there is a termination fee.

“One of the provisions (the PSC) wanted us to put in were termination dates,” England said. “The idea is that you’re going to be on for the life of the project… If you terminate early, there is a nominal termination fee. I believe it’s $20 plus $20 per kW block.”

For example – if someone had a subscription to a four kW block and was looking to cancel their subscription, they would have to pay a $100 termination fee. 

If a subscriber moves somewhere different within the solar garden’s service territory, England said their kW plan will move with them.

Setting themselves apart
When it comes to payment and subscriptions, England said MPU is taking a bit of a different approach.

Unlike the majority of other utility solar generation facilities, where customers have to pay upfront with a capital buy-in payment process, England said MPU developed a pay-as-you-go program.

“Instead of having to plop down a capital investment, you pay for the energy as it is produced, so it requires no money upfront,” he said. “And one of the benefits of this is it opens it up to low- and moderate-income participation, which was a goal we had for this program.”

When it comes to the billing process, England said “it will be treated as though the panels are on your roof.”

David England

“You will get credit under our tariff just like it was on your roof,” he said. “So, what that means is, you get net billing, it offsets your usage at whatever your tariff rate is for your energy. If you’re a residential customer and you’re paying – right now our rate is 8.1 cents – you would get credited 8.1 cents per kilowatt hour up to your usage for the long-term and anything beyond that is at a secondary rate again per our tariff like it were on your roof.”

To summarize it, England said customers would be billed for their normal usage and their slice of the system’s production, and then they would also get credit toward their bill for their part of the solar project. 

“Each subscription is in units of one kW blocks,” he said. “And so, what that means is, out of 1,000, one kW would represent 1/10 of 1% of the facility. Whatever your subscription size is, you get that percentage of the month’s production from the community solar.”

In that case, England said if the solar garden produced 10,000 kW hours, and someone owned one kW block out of 1,000, “that’s a tenth of a percent – you would get 10 of those kW hours.”

“The project’s charge rate… we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be because all the numbers aren’t there, but we’re estimating it’s going to be in the neighborhood of seven cents per kW hour, which is less than the tariff rate,” he said. “So the difference between your residential tariff rate and the project rate is what your savings is.”

England said the project rate will stay level for the entire 20 years.

The benefits
Creating a pay-as-you-go system, Adams said, comes with a significant benefit – accessibility.

“One thing that makes this solar garden special or unique is the rate is designed so it’s not subsidized by those who don’t want to participate,” he said. “It creates an opportunity for those who are interested in participating to own the whole benefit of it. That’s not how other solar gardens have been set up.”

This means those who may not have the ability to use solar power due to costs, or living situations, such as renting, can still receive solar energy, Adams said.

“This is going to give an opportunity for those who may not have the (capabilities) to add solar at their residence or property and participate in something that’s renewable,” he said. “So, anyone who has an apartment, or is renting or may move within our community within the time the solar garden is here, they’re now going to have the opportunity to participate in something like this where they historically would not have.”

On top of that, England said the community solar garden will be a cheaper option, and customers won’t have to worry if their roof is at an optimal spot for the sun.

“You get economies of scale, because this is a large facility built all at once, and you’re getting a little slice of it,” he said. “So, it will be cheaper. You don’t have to deal with the maintenance of a system on your roof. And (the solar garden is) oriented properly and ideally for the location… you get the benefits of optimized engineering, basically.”

At the heart of it all, both Adams and England said the accessibility aspect of the solar community garden is the most important – and keeps them pushing toward the future.

“I’m excited that this is a breakthrough project for us in the sense there hasn’t been a project with rates designed like this that allows people who want to participate to participate and creates access for those who couldn’t participate to now participate,” Adams said. “I think it paves the way to do other things with a similar model. I’m excited for it to be a part of our portfolio – I’m more excited for what’s next.”

England said MPU looks forward to developing more programs like this.

“(We will work) with our customers to facilitate service and new programs that can take advantage of our particular customer profiles, and basically help everybody have less expensive electricity,” he said. “That is our goal – low cost and reliable.”

To learn more about the community solar garden, head to

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