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Utility dispute casts shadow on Minnesota solar project

A 600-kilowatt community solar project could become a casualty of unspecified personnel issues within a rural Minnesota utility.

The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission voted 6-1 on Dec. 12 to place its general manager, Bruce Gomm, on a 30-day paid leave while it investigates alleged “disruptive activities.” Meanwhile, an editorial (registration required) in the city’s newspaper has called for a broader investigation that includes commissioners, department supervisors and City Council members.

It’s unclear what the allegations are about, but they’re a big enough distraction that the board also voted the same day not to move forward with a planned $2.5 million solar project.

The Willmar utility had been working on the project with the Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) and the University of Minnesota’s West Central Partnership. Bloomington-based TenKsolar was prepared to participate as an investor and manufacturer. A consultant was hired over the summer to finalize the plans.

Jeff Vetsch, MnCERTs

The project was an attempt to take the “flip” financing model that’s been successful in community wind projects and apply it to solar, said Jeff Vetsch, CERTs’ West Central Minnesota coordinator.

Willmar Municipal Utilities was slated to contribute $1.2 million toward the project. TenKsolar would have owned and maintained the solar array for five years, during which it would receive all tax incentives related to the project. After that, ownership would be transferred to the local utility.

The solar project was on the agenda for the Dec. 12 meeting when the employee matter came up. Following the closed-session vote on Gomm’s leave, CERTs and TenKsolar gave presentations to the board.

“We thought we had a pretty good model here,” Vetsch said. “They said they really liked the project, but with everything else that was happening they didn’t feel they could do it.”

The utility board’s vice president, Dave Baker, said “timing could not have been worse.”

“We’ve got a lot on our plate,” Baker said in an interview. “When I saw the presentation, I liked it. I think if it was a year from now or six months from now and we had things a whole lot more clear, I think that it would be something that I could support myself.”

By then, however, the model may not be feasible. The project was based on tax incentives that are due to expire at the end of 2012, Vetsch said. CERTs is seeking another utility to revive the project, but the shrinking window to find a new partner will close in a matter of weeks, not months.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Vetsch. “If you know anybody who wants a 600 kilowatt solar array…”

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