MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Xcel Energy is launching a new program that it hopes will be a big boost in solar electricity for the Minneapolis-based utility.

Instead of installing panels on their rooftops, utility customers can subscribe to a community solar garden, then choose how much solar power to buy or lease. Although it’s still unclear how much the average customer will be charged for participating in the Solar Rewards Community program, they’re expected to save money on electricity bills.

On Friday, Xcel began accepting applications from independent energy developers that want to create their own solar parks, which will produce electricity for customers who sign contracts for a portion of the output.

Xcel currently has about 14 megawatts of solar electricity in its system. The program could add 100 megawatts next year, enough to serve 25,000 homes, said Laura McCarten, the company’s vice president.

“This really all depends on the interest of consumers who want to participate in this type of program, what developers put together and offer to consumers and how that market develops,” she said. “It’s something that none of us really know for sure, but we will find out as we go forward. We do expect a high level of interest and activity.”

There are at least a dozen developers already interested in building solar gardens across Minnesota. The first installations should be ready by mid-2015.

Xcel is also pursuing larger, utility-scale solar installations to boost its renewable energy portfolio. Both of the efforts will help the company meet a state requirement to produce 1.5 percent of its power from solar within the next five years.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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