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Thinking Of Going Solar? Online Calculator Compares Power Costs

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) --  Xcel Energy customers will be paying more for their electricity if a proposed three-year rate increase gets approved by Minnesota regulators.

The utility's 9.8 percent rate hike would add about $132 to the average customer's annual power bill. That's a main reason proponents of alternative energy sources say it's a good time for customers to consider subscribing to a community solar garden within their utility's service area.

To help take the financial guesswork out of the decision, the Clean Energy Resource Team at the University of Minnesota has created an online calculator to help you crunch the numbers.

It used to be that if you wanted solar energy you had to install your own photovoltaic panels on your rooftop. Community solar gardens have changed all that.

"For a long time I've been interested in solar power," John Egan said.

Egan and his wife decided to put their money where their beliefs are by subscribing to their local power cooperative's community solar garden program. By doing so in 2014, the Egan's locked in a predictable cost of power that they hope will rise slower than conventional power generation.

"You really are pre-paying for electricity for 20 years of solar cells. Assume that electricity is going to go up at a modest rate. You can do some math but really it comes down to are you going to be moving anytime soon?" John Egan said.

But calculating the cost advantage over the long haul can be tricky. Social responsibility is one thing, but does making a switch to solar save you money down the road?

"What will that financial benefit be for you?" Dan Thiede with the Clean Energy Resource Team asks.

The U of M's Clean Energy Resource Team is taking away the guesswork. They've created a calculator on CERT's website that allows consumers to plug in electric usage, cost per kilowatt hour and average rate hikes to compare the long-term payback.

"In even conservative estimates of how energy prices will increase, with the rates most community solar gardens are offering, people are going to be ahead financially," Thiede said.

John Egan says customers need to think of the investment not as playing the stock market, but rather purchasing a low yielding bond, and a green one at that.

"It's probably between a 13 to 15 year payback but you get the next five years of energy essentially free," John Egan said.

In 2013, the legislature required Xcel Energy to make solar gardens available to customers in the utility's service area. It establishes a goal of 1.5 percent of its power generation from solar by 2020.

Look for a rush of solar garden over the next year before the huge federal tax incentives expire at the end of 2016.

To see if you could benefit from solar garden subscription check out CERT's on-line calculator.

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