Electric Customers to Be Polled on Choice of Solar Energy or Biofuel in Grand Rapids, Minnesota

by | Sep 20, 2016

Local residents and businesses soon may be able to choose to purchase electricity produced by a community solar garden, or by a forest-derived biomass facility – or by both, according to a September 17 report in the Grand Rapids (Minnesota) Herald-Review.

Between September 23 and October 25, the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission (GRPUC) will be mailing more than 7,000 surveys – also to be posted online at http://www.grpuc.org/ – to electric customers in order to explain the new program and to gauge the level of customer interest in pursuing solar or biofuel opportunities.

“As much response as we can possibly receive will help us make a decision,” GRPUC Assistant Manager Julie Kennedy told the local news outlet in an interview. “Now is the time to respond because we’re just brainstorming and no decisions have been made yet.”

The Itasca-Mantrap Cooperative Services Clean Energy Team has supported the community solar garden ever since it was first proposed about a year ago. “We need to start the transition from fossil fuel consumption sooner than later,” Itasca team member Bill Schnell told the Herald-Review. “In the longer-term, solar energy can save money and it can be accessible to anyone.”

“We’ve been looking at every model around and we hope Grand Rapids can be an example for other communities,” said team member Vicki Andrews regarding the research that has gone into the solar option.

Whether a large, centralized panel is constructed or various local hosts serve as solar locations, if the solar garden concept is adopted by GRPUC customers, it will be built according to desire.

“It’s such a growing idea all over the world – and Minnesota is leading the way,” added Andrews. “If we do this well, it could be a source of community pride.”

GRPUC customers would be able to purchase a subscription for solar power to provide all or part of their electricity needs each month. The cost would then depend on the number of power shares purchased, the size and number of panels that are constructed and the payment plan of the customer’s choice, the newspaper said.

A forest-derived biomass-fueled facility would be similar to what Minnesota Power has provided for UPM Blandin paper company at the Rapids Energy Center (REC), where wood waste material is burned with coal to produce steam and electrical energy. On an annual basis, approximately 80 percent of the fuel utilized at REC is biomass.

Grand Rapids has determined that the REC facility is capable of producing additional energy that could be distributed through the GRPUC electrical system to customers.

Similar to wind energy, the cost to produce biomass-fueled energy is slightly higher than the cost to produce electricity from coal, the MPUC told the newspaper. As a result, a biofuel energy program would include a small surcharge to cover the additional cost of production. According to the GRPUC survey information, this surcharge typically would range from $2.30 to $2.70 per 100 kilowatt-hour (kWh) block per month.

Exact subscription pricing would depend on whether the project has sufficient interest to move forward to development phase.

Starting Sept. 27, a copy of the GRPUC survey on solar and biofuel opportunities will be online atwww.grpuc.org/survey. The deadline for submitting the surveys is Tuesday, October 25. Kennedy said they have provided several options for completing and returning the eight-question surveys. People may return them by mail (to GRPUC, 500 SE 4th St. , P.O. Box 658, Grand Rapids, MN 55744), or by dropping them off at the box outside the GRPUC office, or scan and email them to Julie Kennedy at jakennedy@grpuc.org, or do the whole thing online.

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