Connexus Energy

Minnesota
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Connexus: Cooperative Leadership

A leader among cooperatives, Connexus successfully provides community solar to their members and developed one of the first pollinator-friendly solar gardens in the country. They then worked with local beekeepers to produce honey at the solar farm. In addition, the cooperative is adding battery storage to their next solar expansion and promoting electric vehicle charging.

“We like to think of ourselves as being a little bit innovative serving member needs,” said Ridderbusch.

ELPC visited with Connexus while they hosted a solar farm honey extraction event for their members and spoke with co-op leaders and their members to learn more.

CEO is Solar Energy Leader

Connexus CEO of three years, Greg Ridderbusch, brought with him a decade of energy experience in the “energy scene” from his previous position at Great River Energy, a generation and transmission cooperative.

“When I was [at Great River Energy], I was the heretic… that said ‘you know, solar is looking real, we should be paying attention to it, let’s start trying out a little bit of it, to learn,’” explained Ridderbusch at the 2018 Midwest Solar Expo conference.

While Ridderbusch was there, Great River Energy built the most solar power in Minnesota (at the time 80 kilowatts) atop its headquarters in Maple Grove. He also led solar projects with other cooperatives, including the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota.

His can-do attitude produces results. With Ridderbusch’s longtime involvement with community solar projects and the contributions of other skilled staff members who work for the cooperative, Connexus has been able to serve their members with clean energy innovations. “We’re greening the grid, and we’re looking for people to collaborate with,” said Ridderbusch of his work at Connexus.

Members spoke, Connexus listened

Connexus Energy focuses on serving members, so when the members increased demand for clean energy, Connexus made it a priority to provide that service.  In 2014, Connexus installed a 245 kW community solar “starter” project outside the Twin Cities area to begin their foray into solar power. The solar panels provide members in the North Metro area the opportunity to move to low carbon, local solar power.

“So like many co-ops, members are very conscious of the environment, and ours were telling us through survey and directly that they wanted to see us have more green energy. Of course the grid is becoming more green, but [our members] wanted to see it right here, at home. And so we decided to build a solar array and offer them a chance to participate in it,” said Ridderbusch.

Connexus operates the solar farm under their “SolarWise” community program that offers members two options to participate. In one option members can purchase individual panels and earn credits for the output at the current rate. The other option allows members to avoid up-front costs by paying a monthly fee instead.

Cooperative member and SolarWise subscriber, Leah, brought her son Anders to the event and took part in the honey harvest. Anders helped scrape the wax and pour honey from the centrifuge and then they toured the solar farm.

Leah had a solar assessment done on her home and found it was not suitable for solar panels. By subscribing to the “SolarWise” program at Connexus headquarters, she is able to use solar power. Leah and Anders showed great enthusiasm for the project, especially the triple innovations of prairie planting, beekeeping and solar farm honey.  “Combining the solar and prairie together seems like a good fit,” said Leah.

A Solar Garden

Connexus pioneered pollinator-friendly ground cover at their first community solar project and plan to use the approach on future projects. Pollinator-friendly ground cover, or “prairie solar”, uses low-growing, perennial prairie plants to cover the ground beneath and around solar panels  instead of impervious surfaces such as gravel or turfgrass. This approach provides multiple benefits: storm water control, improved aesthetics, greater community acceptance, integration with agriculture and habitat for pollinators.

Greg Ridderbusch said that this idea sprang from a cooperative member’s company that specializes in establishing prairie. “Here we had a member in our service area called Prairie Restorations, and that member was able to plant prairie flowers, prairie plants, keep our cost down and do something good for the environment. So it just worked for us economically and for the environment.”

Working in partnership, Connexus and Prairie Restorations planned for the new solar farm to be planted with a variety of deep-rooted, low-growing grasses and flowering plants instead of gravel. Now, the solar farm not only harvests solar power, but also provides land cover and habitat for struggling pollinator populations such as bees, butterflies and others.

“The dirty secret is, it’s less costly. Less costly, good for the environment and supports a [remedy, for a] national problem with pollinators,” said Ridderbusch.

Producing Solar Farm Honey

Following their community solar project with pollinator friendly ground cover, the next stage for Connexus was a partnership with another local company.

The company established an on-site apiary (collection of beehives) as the pollinator-friendly solar provides “healthy habitat” for their bees that collect pollen from the flowering plants under and around the solar panels. They then produce solar farm honey.

A large number of enthusiastic cooperative members turned out for a honey harvest demonstration that extracted honey from the solar-sited beehives. Members saw how honey is harvested, and they had the chance to scrape the combs of wax, themselves. They put the frames from the hives into the centrifuge, spun it, and watched the honey pour forth. Connexus provided honey to members who participated in the SolarWise community solar project and also donated some for local community fundraisers.

The whole event fostered great member involvement and carried out cooperative principles of member economic participation; education, training, and information; and concern for community.

 

Looking Forward: Solar Expansion Plus Storage

Connexus is stepping up their clean energy capacity by adding more solar and significant battery storage. They have installed another 10 MW of solar, total, at two sites to better serve their members in the North Metro area.

They are installing 15 MW of storage batteries with the solar. At their annual meeting in April 2018, Connexus revealed that these plans are set to be completed by year’s end and occupy a total area of 60 acres across multiple sites.

“I am excited about what’s happening in our industry in terms of change. Think about the technologies that are here today that even weren’t there competitively five years ago. There’s solar. There’s battery storage,” says Greg Ridderbusch.

Connexus is partnering with SoCore Energy for the additional solar and NextEra Energy for storage implementation.

Beneficial Electrification with Electric Vehicle Charging

While Connexus charges forward with power generation innovations, they also lead in adopting electric vehicle recharging.

Members can recharge their electric vehicles at one of several electric charging stations located next to the solar farm at co-op headquarters. To explore electric vehicle technology, Connexus installed a total of eight chargers of three different speeds and costs. More charging stations help co-ops serve the growing electric vehicle market while increasing power sales.

Recently, Connexus started their Municipal Fleet Vehicle Analysis for Electric Vehicle Adoption program which is helping local governments in their service territory analyze their fleet energy use and plan vehicle and charging station implementation.

Connexus offers a rebate for members who install a 240 volt (level 2) electric vehicle charging station. The power used through this charger or at their stations is completely sourced from wind energy in conjunction with Great River Energy.

Their vehicle charging strategy reflects a new utility business model where power sales are increased by building electric demand with uses that replace dirty fossil fuels. When done in tandem with energy efficiency and clean power production, it provides a road to a cleaner and safer low carbon future for everyone and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.

 

Concern for community

The Connexus story demonstrates how a cooperative can apply the principle of concern for community to innovate and better serve members. They exceeded their basic service requirements and, in the process, generated greater member engagement and community connections.

Connexus built their innovations upon a partnership that has led to sustainable economic development for local businesses; Prairie Restorations, Inc. prepared their solar garden and now provides the same ecological development services nationwide and internationally.

By listening to members and innovative partners and voluntarily addressing environmental concerns, Connexus sets a shining example for other cooperatives.

Connexus Energy Photo Gallery

Prairie solar in bloom at Connexus Energy
Young Co-op member watches solar honey flow
Connexus Energy Pollinator Friendly Solar Garden
Greg Ridderbusch, CEO of Connexus Energy
Co-op mother & son investigate solar honey
Solar Honey production at Connexus Energy Solar Garden
Connexus Energy Pollinator Friendly Solar Garden
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Connexus Energy Co-op Family and Visitor
Marshall 1 2018
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Connexus Energy Videos

Introduction to Connexus Energy

Cooperatives are in a time of great evolution in the industry.

The growing cost effectiveness of solar

Connexus pollinator friendly choices for their solar arrays

How the Connexus Energy pollinator-friendly solar project came together.

Connexus Energy’s pollinator partnerships

Samantha Neral shares the experience with pollinator-friendly solar innovation

Orienting solar panels to maximize energy production.

Connexus Energy is building on solar success

Why Connexus leads on solar plus storage

Connexus CEO explains battery storage at scale.

Connexus Energy Resources

Connexus Energy Service Area Map

Connexus Energy Service Area Map

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