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Advancement of renewable energy goals focus of tour

SPICER -- The owners of the Spicer SuperStop wanted to make their car wash and convenience store more energy efficient.

Ed Nowacki, who lives on a farm site west of Spicer, wanted to become more self-sufficient when it comes to using energy.

Both installed different types of solar energy systems and are seeing their goals being met.

These two examples of commercial and residential applications of solar energy were featured on a clean energy tour Wednesday that attracted elected officials, business leaders, members of environmental groups and interested citizens.

About 30 people attended the three-hour tour and discussion, which was co-sponsored by the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and the Izaak Walton League Midwest Office.

The country is at a "crossroads" when it comes to making the transition from decreasing dependence on coal-based fuel and renewable energy, said John Hottinger, a former state senator who now serves on the executive committee of the Sierra Club.

The tour was a chance to see some of the "success stories" that could help advance the renewable energy industry, said Hottinger.

With its roof-mounted, 10-kilowatt solar array panels, the Spicer SuperStop is able produce a minimum of 5 percent of its energy needs and as high as 25 percent, said Clint Kyllonen, master electrician from Zenergy, the company that installed the system.

During summer months the low-maintenance panels collect considerable solar energy, but the store's energy demands are also higher.

The panels were installed in October. The initial investment cost was $6 per kilowatt. But the Xcel Energy solar rebate program, state solar incentive funds and a 30 percent federal tax credit cut the price in half.

Kyllonen said the state's solar funding has since been eliminated, which has put a damper on the growth of solar energy in the state.

Because of the financial incentives, the Spicer business will see a payback of their investment in five or six years. Based on the long life expectancy of the system, he said the store could see at least 25 years of "free energy."

At the Nowacki home there are five free-standing tracking solar systems on the southern edge of the tree-lined farm site that follow the sun from east to west to generate about 16,500 kilowatts of electricity in a year -- enough to service his home and two large outbuildings.

His initial $101,000 investment was offset with $16,000 in incentives, said Joe Schnell, the farm's caretaker. Because the home gets its electricity from the Kandiyohi County Power Cooperative, it's not eligible for Xcel's attractive solar rebate.

Based on the current rate of electricity, Schnell estimates the investment will be paid off in 13 years.

The sophisticated system provides constant analysis of how much electricity the units are producing at the moment, how much for the day and how much since they began running. It also indicates "how much CO2 you've supposedly saved the environment," said Schnell, referring to carbon dioxide.

As part of the tour, which began and ended at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, the group heard summaries of projects the center has undertaken in its efforts to have 100 percent of its energy come from renewable energy.

They're getting close, said Dave Pederson, director of the center.

Along with a variety of solar systems, wind energy and biomass currently in operation there, the center's staff is now using a 144-volt electric pickup to make trips around the 500-acre site and to nearby towns for errands.

With an electric motor and four batteries under the hood and a bank of batteries in the box of the small truck, the vehicle is able to travel about 40 miles after being plugged in overnight, drawing current produced by the wind or solar systems.

"This can't be your only vehicle unless you're happy close to home," said Pederson.

The vehicle is a cooperative project by several groups, including the New London-Spicer School ag department and the University of Minnesota's electrical engineering program.

"It's a work in progress," said Pederson.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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