ST. PAUL — Solar gardens are attracting an unexpected customer — cities.

Farmington, Minn., city officials announced earlier this month that they were unplugging from Xcel Energy and replacing their power with electricity from five solar gardens. With that, Farmington joined a list of solar-powered cities that includes Woodbury, Minn., and River Falls, Wis.

“Right now, even in the pandemic, solar gardens are thriving,” said Peter Lindstrom, manager of public sector and community engagement for Clean Energy Resource Teams, which helps with alternative-energy installations. “It is absolutely increasing.”

Cities are switching to solar for their street lights, offices, ice arenas and waste-treatment plants. There is no overall count of solar-powered cities, but Lindstrom said 60 in the metro area have adopted green-energy goals, which usually call for switching to solar.

25-year commitment

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Cities are natural allies in the fight against global warming, said Lindstrom.

They are reliable solar customers, he said. The contracts require a 25-year commitment — more acceptable to cities than to individuals.

“You and I might not be around for 25 years, but the city of Minneapolis will be,” he said.

And cities want to help. “It is the cities that see the impact of global warming firsthand, with hurricanes and wildfires,” said Lindstrom.

Switching to solar is as easy as signing a contract. There are no costly installations of clunky-looking panels, and no maintenance worries. The panels are not necessarily even in the city limits, and are managed by businesses and nonprofits.

“For cities, it’s wading into the shallow end of the clean-energy pool,” said Lindstrom.

2013 state law helped spur solar

A 2013 state law, which mandated that major utilities generate 1.5% of their power through solar by 2020, helped plant the gardens around the state. It provided incentives for businesses and co-ops to build small solar gardens, and sell the power independently to customers.

That law is why Minnesota has more solar gardens than anywhere else in the country, said Lindstrom. “It was a game-changer. Before that, Minnesota had very little solar,” he said.

The cost of solar power including the effect of tax credits is now about half the cost of coal-generated power, according to Wikipedia.

Minnesota’s widely scattered solar gardens are close to their customers, which helps to make them cost-efficient.

Farmington, population 23,000, will save $8,000 a year in electricity costs when it completes the switch to solar in December. Farmington’s solar power comes from two sites in Faribault, and the city expects to bring three more gardens online by the end of the year.

“It’s a low-risk opportunity to save money,” said community development director Adam Kienberger.

Other units of government look to solar

Corey Orehek of the consulting firm Nokomis Energy said solar is catching on with other units of government, too.

Solar customers include the state Department of Transportation, Goodhue and Waseca counties, and several school districts.

“You can bank that 10% savings, and not make any changes in your facilities,” said Orehek.

Solar-power developer US Solar serves 30 units of government statewide. For them, the benefits stretch beyond cheap electricity, according to director of origination Erica Forsman.

The gardens bring in revenue because they are taxed like any other development. Many cities install the gardens on city-owned land — so they also get lease payments.

“Not only do they bring down costs, but they do it with no up-front expenses,” said Forsman.

Woodbury is maxed out on solar — getting the legal limit of its needs from the sun.

Sustainability specialist Jennifer McLoughlin said the city consumes what it needs and sells the remaining 20% back to Xcel Energy.

It might do even more.

The city has already installed rooftop panels on the Public Safety Building, said McLoughlin, and is considering putting panels on other buildings that can’t be served by the solar gardens.