Small and large systems abound, but challenges remain
Solar-power systems, many of which are fueled with federal grant money, are rising like the sun throughout the metro area.
On Monday, St. Paul officials will christen an 82-kilowatt, 348-panel solar photovoltaic installation on the roof of the St. Paul RiverCentre parking ramp, a project being paid for with federal stimulus money via the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
Earlier this week the Minneapolis Public Schools showed off its new photovoltaic setup on the gymnasium roof at Thomas Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis. The project is part of what the district is calling a “major energy-efficiency retrofit” in Minneapolis schools.
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota is hoping to install a 35-kilowatt photovoltaic system atop the flat roof of the University Office Plaza building on the East Bank.
Smaller projects are ubiquitous, from private residences to small businesses like Pat’s Tap.
Pat’s Tap, a new restaurant at 3510 Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis, is touting a 10-kilowatt PV system that is “spinning our meters backwards when the sun shines,” according to a news release from restaurant owners Kim and Kari Bartmann.
The projects come at a tough time for U.S. solar manufacturers, who are facing increasing heat from Chinese competitors.
But the rising global competition and improved technology means installation costs are coming down, said John Kearney, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.
Over the past year, such costs have dropped 20 to 25 percent, he said.
“It is getting cheaper to install and more competitive, and that has happened fairly quickly,” Kearney noted.
The result: Solar installations in Minnesota are up from 320 at the beginning of 2010 to more than 600 today, Kearney said, adding that “there are a lot of those 35-, 40-kilowatt projects popping up.”
Jerome Malmquist, director of energy management at the University of Minnesota, said the University Office Plaza building would be a “nice demonstration area” for a photovoltaic system, given its high-profile location near TCF Bank Stadium.
Thanks to a nice influx of federal stimulus money that will pay for the project, it’s expected to be installed by the end of the year.
Malquist said the project wouldn’t “pencil out” if the university had to pay for it with its own money. But “if this works out, the university will end up fully compensated for putting this project in. It won’t cost us a dime,” he said.
Large installations on structures like the University Office Plaza are more expensive to install and maintain than residential setups.
Maintenance and replacement costs should be figured into the payback calculation, Malmquist noted.
“We are trying our darnedest to make this stuff work. But you have to look at the big picture, too,” Malmquist said.
Kearney agrees that upkeep costs have to be factored in. For solar installations, that can be a challenge because you never know, for example, how many maintenance hours will have to be spent keeping the panels free of snow.
During a snowy winter like last year, it could be a significant cost; other years, not so much.
Anne Hunt, environmental policy director in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office, said the photovoltaic panels on the RiverCentre are “low-maintenance,” American-made products.
They will rest at an angle on a structural steel base. If snow gets on them it will slide off, she said.
St. Paul-based Hunt Electric is installing the solar array on RiverCentre, which also boasts electric car charging stations and more than 1,080 newly installed, highly efficient lights.
Paid for largely with federal stimulus dollars, the lighting, charging stations and solar photovoltaic projects represent about $750,000 in energy improvements, Hunt said.
Overall, the improvements will save the city about $60,000 a year in energy costs, she said.
For Pat’s Tap, the total cost to install the system was about $90,000, but after a series of rebates are factored in, including a 30 percent federal rebate, the final cost to the client is $11,200, according to data provided by the owners.
With the rebates and energy savings, the project is expected to reach the “break-even” point in six years.
Overall, there is a tendency to look only at current energy costs when calculating how long it will take for a solar installation to pay for itself, but the projects will start to make more sense considering that energy prices are likely to rise, Kearney said.
“I think a lot of people feel they are getting in on the front end of a trend,” Kearney said. “So people are willing to pay more now, even though it doesn’t [look good on paper]. And they can’t see the cost of solar and wind going up.”
The allure of solar projects, however, goes beyond dollars and cents.
Some people, knowing that there is value in being perceived as “green,” might be looking for a public relations boost. Others, like the Minneapolis Public Schools, see it as a teachable moment.
“This project is significant because it provides an opportunity for Thomas Edison to expand its science curriculum to include solar energy,” Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, said in a statement.
Partners in the Edison High School project are local medical device provider Boston Scientific and CBS EcoMedia, which connects municipal governments with corporations “eager to improve the quality of life in the communities they serve.”