Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative builds an environmental oasis outside the big city

Not far from the buzz of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, lies a cooperative that has created a haven for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The pollinator garden is located alongside the co-op’s solar project and is proof of the beautiful things that can happen when technology and environmental values work together.

Monarch butterfly on a flower
Monarch butterfly in the pollinator garden.

Helping members follow their renewable ideals

Last year, for the first time ever, Basin Electric added solar to its future energy portfolio, with its first solar contract beginning in 2023. Solar energy is now competitive in the market, and it provides generation during the daytime when the system peaks.

But seven years before Basin Electric announced its first solar power purchase, one of its members was installing a solar project of its own.

In 2013, when community solar projects were still relatively new, Basin Electric Class A Member Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association installed a solar array at its headquarters in Rockford, Minnesota. These initial 171 panels were the first of four solar projects located on the cooperative’s property. The second project was built alongside the first one the following year and the third project in the same area two years after that. The most recent project was built three years later (in 2017) at the co-op’s Willow substation in Medina, Minnesota.

Before constructing the first solar project, Wright-Hennepin conducted a survey that ultimately showed the importance of using renewable energy to many of its members. Installing solar panels isn’t a good option at some of these members’ homes, for reasons such as a high initial installation cost or the home may not be well-suited for solar. As a result, the cooperative constructed the projects on its own property to give their members a way to purchase renewable energy. “It’s a way for our members to show their environmental values in a way that works for them,” says Andrea Unger, Wright-Hennepin’s director of marketing and member services.

Every bit of the power from the co-op’s existing community solar projects is spoken for and purchased by members. Today, Wright-Hennepin is offering two additional programs for members who want to support renewables. The first program, Solar Choice, allows members to purchase blocks of solar energy equal to 100 kilowatt hours per month – the amount that a typical household uses.

The second program, Renewable Choice, provides members with the opportunity to add renewable attributes from the energy generated by renewable resources such as wind turbines and solar arrays in the region to match 100% of the member’s energy consumption. Any home receiving power from Wright-Hennepin is eligible to participate in either of these programs.

Blooming where it shines

pollinator garden in front of co-op headquarters building
Pollinator garden at Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative headquarters.

Last summer, Wright-Hennepin took its environmental commitment a step farther by installing a pollinator garden near the solar panels at its headquarters building. The garden is over an acre of native perennial plants that attract birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators– species that are vital to crop production and whose populations are decreasing at an alarming rate.

“When I saw the work other cooperatives across the state and nation have been doing with pollinator gardens, I thought the areas near our solar panels would be the perfect place to plant one,” Unger says. “Initial planting costs were minimal and the ongoing maintenance is very similar to mowing, so it was a great option for us.”

Just one year after it was planted, blooms already adorn the area, providing beauty to humans and critical habitat to pollinators and other wildlife.

Unger says it will take a few years before the garden is fully mature, but over time it will be converted into a rich landscape of native grasses and wildflowers for animal nesting, resting, and feeding habitat. “It will provide a home for various pollinators, which help support the food supply for animals and humans alike. We look forward to watching the habitat grow and seeing what kinds of creatures make this area their home.”

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