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Solar sprouting in Southwest Minnesota

APPLETON -- Solar panels are sprouting amongst the corn fields and on the rooftops of Southwestern Minnesota, and we can expect more of them soon.At the end of 2015, Minnesota calculated that its solar electric capacity had reached 35 megawatts. ...

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Kandiyohi Power Cooperative is among the state’s utilities which have built solar gardens for customers interested in supporting renewable energy, but not interested in building and maintaining their own systems. The local cooperative has 140 solar panels in its garden, 90 of which are currently contracted for by customers. RAND MIDDLETON/TRIBUNE

APPLETON - Solar panels are sprouting amongst the corn fields and on the rooftops of Southwestern Minnesota, and we can expect more of them soon.
At the end of 2015, Minnesota calculated that its solar electric capacity had reached 35 megawatts. By the end of this year, the Minnesota Department of Commerce projects the total will be 400 megawatts, Lissa Pawlisch, with the Southwest Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Team, told an audience Tuesday in Appleton.
 “So much happening, so much change,’’ Kristi Fernholz, team director for the region, told the audience by way of introduction. Many were city and county officials who are looking at what role local governments should play as solar panels become a bigger part of the landscape.
The open skies of Southwestern Minnesota provide some of the best solar resources in the state, and consequently the region is seeing solar development both small and large, according to Annette Fiedler, physical development director with the Southwest Regional Development Commission in Slayton. She pointed out examples of solar gardens that have been added to power farms and homes, businesses and more. A 62.25 megawatt solar farm has been approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission near Marshall. It will send its power to the grid and its intended customer, Xcel Energy.   
Much of the impetus for large-scale solar power is due to Minnesota’s renewable energy requirement adopted in 2013. It requires that the state’s investor owned utilities obtain 1.5 percent of their electric production for retail sales from solar.
Much of the solar development in the region is occurring in Xcel Energy’s service territories, Pawlisch said. The utility is expected to have 200 megawatt in solar electric capacity by year’s end, according to the Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association.
Yet increasingly, solar is showing up as part of the energy mix offered by local power cooperatives and municipal utilities not under the state mandate. Much of that is due to consumer interest. Many utilities have subscribers willing to pay a premium for renewable energy. Bill Klyve, Otter Tail Power, said the cooperative’s wind power is sold out, even though customers pay more for it.
Solar is increasingly replacing wind as the renewable energy of choice for many who are installing their own, behind-the-meter renewable energy power sources for their homes, farms or businesses. Pawlisch said it’s a result of what’s known as the “Swanson effect.” The cost of producing crystal silicon photovoltaic cells has continued to drop year-by-year, making solar energy an economically viable energy option.
That’s particularly true when considering small scale energy sources for homes or farms. “I have not seen a wind generator in quite some time,’’ said Dan Tepfer, Kandiyohi Power Cooperative, in speaking about how solar is replacing small-scale wind.
The power cooperative has about two dozen customers with their own, behind the meter solar or wind systems.
Like a number of other cooperatives, Kandiyohi Power has responded to consumer interest in renewable energy by building its own solar garden. Customers are able to contract for the power output from one or more panels for a 25-year period of time. They don’t have to build or maintain their own units, and yet support renewable energy.
Tepfer said the first question prospective customers of the solar garden have is this: “What is the payback?’’
“I can’t give you a definite answer,’’ he said of his response. “It depends on what the price of electricity is going to be.’’
Right now, solar looks as if it will prove to be competitive for the long haul. Tepfer said Kandiyohi Power installed a 140-panel system. Each panel- which costs a customer $1,250 for 25 years of output-  is producing about 500 kilowatts a year.
Carried out for a 25-year period, it appears that a customer will be paying the equivalent 10 cents a kilowatt for the output from their panel, or roughly the current price of retail electricity. “The way I look at it, I locked in today’s electric price for the next 25 years, for that portion of it anyway,’’ said Tepfer.
He said that 90 of the 140 panels have been purchased at this point.
 

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