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Survey of local utility customers would gauge support for solar farm

WILLMAR -- The development of a 60-kilowatt solar farm in Kandiyohi County will hinge on the results of a survey being distributed by two local utility companies.

The Kandiyohi Power Cooperative and Willmar Municipal Utilities are inviting their customers to respond to the short survey to gauge the level of interest and financial support for investing in a local sun-powered renewable energy project.

"We need to find out what the customers are thinking," said Dan Tepfer, energy management specialist with the cooperative.

A positive response from about 200 customers who would be willing to provide some financial backing could be enough to launch the pilot project, he said. The final go-ahead of the joint project between the two utilities would also depend on grants and tax credits that could reduce costs and make the project viable.

If it proceeds, the goal would be to create a small solar farm that would serve as a model of a "reproducible" system that would provide reliable renewable energy for utility companies.

A potential for future expansion and the ultimate size of the project will be determined by member interest, according to the utilities.

Having a local solar farm that would produce 60 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to power about five average homes, would be a way for people who want to be "environmentally mindful" to say, "I own a part of that," Tepfer said.

According to a statement that prefaces the online survey, the utilities said the project would be in response to customers' requests for exploring ways to reduce reliance on fossil and foreign sources of fuels, reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate the local economy by keeping energy dollars local and creating new jobs in the field of renewable energy.

There are several options for funding a potential project.

One likely scenario involves an outside investor providing the up-front money to finance the purchase of the solar panels that would be installed in a 170-by-60-foot space somewhere in the county, said Jeff Vetch, coordinator for the West Central/Southwest Clean Energy Team.

That investor would be able to take advantage of federal tax credits for renewable energy projects that the nonprofit utility companies are unable to.

Local investors would pay the cost the two utilities would incur to rent the solar equipment, and eventually purchase it, said Vetch. That kind of financial "flip" is not uncommon for other renewable energy projects, he said.

That plan would also allow the utility customers who want to invest in solar energy to do so while other customers "don't have to pay for something they don't agree with," said Tepfer.

Those who participate financially would "bear the initial cost" and "they would reap the rewards of it," he said.

While wind energy has been the focus of many utilities, Tepfer said there are some advantages to solar energy that make it an appealing avenue to pursue.

Unlike wind turbines, solar panels are quiet, don't interfere with bird migration, don't cast fluttering shadows, have no real moving parts to repair and are installed and repaired by people standing on the ground instead of high in the air.

Tepfer also said 70 percent of solar energy is produced at a time when peak energy is needed.

The recent hot summer days, for example, would provide plenty of energy to keep air conditioners running. By contrast, high winds are usually recorded in the spring and fall in Minnesota, when energy demands aren't as high.

Solar panels are also proven to work efficiently in cold Minnesota winters.

Vetch said having a solar farm in the county would be a "fantastic project." Investing in the project would provide an option for people who don't have the ability to put a rooftop solar panel on their own homes to help provide renewable energy that their utility company generates.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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