ST. CLOUD — A crew hammered together solar panels and fastened them to a south-facing frame Thursday in a new solar garden along Sherburne County Road 8, just south and east of St. Cloud.
Panels already hung in 12 of 13 rows of the garden developed by Cooperative Energy Futures. New wires coiled at the end of each row.
Those panels will start to generate power around the end of June.
The new garden will produce enough energy to offset the electricity use of 160 households, said Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, general manager of the cooperative.
The project in Haven Township at 57th Street Southeast is the most northern solar installation for Cooperative Energy Futures, but it’s surrounded by other solar developments to the north and south along County Road 8.
All manner of solar installations are popping up around the St. Cloud area, from a proposed 800-acre solar farm north of Rice to the Haven Township garden to smaller systems like the solar panels installed on the lot of General Rental Centers in St. Cloud.
Solar currently meets 2% of the state’s energy needs, said Dan Thiede, communications director for Clean Energy Resource Teams.
And the state has a goal to reach 10% solar by 2030.
“There’s no stopping solar,” Thiede said
It’s already booming
Minnesota’s solar capacity reached one megawatt in 2007, Thiede said. That capacity expanded to more than 1,000 megawatts in the first quarter of 2019.
Wind energy makes up 18% of the state’s energy production, but in 2017 and 2018 new solar installations surpassed wind installations for the first time, Thiede said.
“It’s really the smartest economic choice for the state to be moving toward renewable energy,” Thiede said. “We have a lot of energy infrastructure in this state. In general, Minnesota is an importer of fuel.”
Leo Zimmermann installed solar panels in the lot of his St. Cloud business, General Rental Center, last summer. They’re visible from Division Street, behind Walgreens, DM Motors and the former Ciatti’s Ristorante.
The people installing solar panels for the city rented some equipment from Zimmermann, and that’s where he got the idea to host his own solar installation, he said Thursday.
On cloudy days he takes energy off the grid, Zimmermann said. On sunny days, his panels return power to the grid.
“It kind of wipes out the electric bill,” Zimmermann said. The solar panels also provide some shelter for the equipment he rents.
Local governments in the game
St. Cloud is already a leader in the state when it comes to renewable energy.
And solar power is a big part of that equation.
In 2018 city government facilities got 64% of their power from renewable sources and the majority of that came from community solar gardens, according to a report on city-wide energy data.
In 2019 that number will will be closer to 80% or 85%, wrote the city’s Public Services Director Patrick Shea in an email. With hydro energy included, St. Cloud already produces way more renewable energy than it needs — about 265%.
St. Cloud city facilities draw energy from eight solar arrays used just for the city and the city subscribes to 27 community solar gardens, Shea wrote.
The city saved nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2018 thanks to its solar initiative, according to Shea.
Solar can also save individual people money too.
Not everyone has the means to install solar panels on their home. But that’s where cooperatives, like Cooperative Energy Futures and other community solar providers come in.
People subscribe to the program, purchasing energy from a shared system. Any energy they don’t need can be sold back to the utility.
The community solar program has been “a powerful driver in the state for jobs and solar development in general,” DenHerder-Thomas said.
That program really got going around 2013, Thiede said. Solar gardens are the source of about half of the solar energy production in the state.
Commercial and residential sites, like the panels at General Rental Centers, make up 10%, Thiede said. And solar farms make up 40% of the state’s solar energy output.
Solar farms are the largest solar developments, and there’s one in the works north of St. Cloud.
Langola Township in Benton County is the chosen site for an 800-acre solar farm. Town and county officials have given the project, called the Regal Solar Project, their blessing. But it still needs state approval.
The Regal solar farm would be as productive as the state’s largest solar producer, according to recent reporting by the St. Cloud Times.
Local officials say the project will provide an economic benefit to the area as a new taxpayer.
And for the investors in solar, it’s an economical choice, Thiede said. Wind and solar infrastructure are the cheapest energies you can build new.
And after the initial investment, he said, “you can kind of sit back.”