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Sun shines bright on (some) Minnesota schools

November 14th, 2017 · No Comments

Several Minnesota schools are celebrating significant rooftop solar installations. Leveraging public-private partnerships (enabling use of Federal tax credits) and Xcel Energy’s state-mandated community solar garden program, these schools are covering their roofs with power generation with no upfront investment costs and lower electrical bills & pollution loads from day one.

Solar panels cover Dodge Middle School, Farmington Area Schools, Minnesota

These Farmington Area School district deployments offer some lessons and thoughts for paths forward — both in terms of the positive lessons, potential lost opportunities, and (challenging) problems meriting addressing (solving?).

As to the positive, there are some pretty straightforward across three domains: financial, environmental, and educational. With all the various rate structures and incentive programs, the deployments are

  • lowering utility costs (estimated over 20 percent)
    • thus freeing more money for actual educational programs and
  • replacing polluting energy with clean energy

solar arrays on Dodge Middle School will annually reduce emissions by an estimated 834 tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of taking 179 gasoline-powered cars off the road, or planting 21,271 trees

the Farmington schools deploying solar systems are leveraging solar for educational benefits.

  • Some panels are ground-installed, allowing a ‘kick the tires’ familiarization with the solar deployments; and,
  • (Some) Teachers are incorporating the solar systems into their educational program.
    • IPS Solar schools program emphasizes that “With solar systems from IPS Solar, students are able to see first-hand how sunlight is converted to electricity and solar installations can be integrated into a school’s math, science, and technologies programs to improve test scores in those fields.”

In Red Wing and elsewhere the opportunity to teach about clean energy has been an attraction. “There’s not only benefits from the savings but benefits to curriculums of schools,” IPS Solar VP Eric Pasi noted. “Students will have a chance to study the big data that can be collected from these projects and brought into the classrooms.”

More directly, from a teacher’s perspective:

Mounds View High School’s flat roof sports a colorful solar array capable of reducing the school’s electricity costs and giving students a real-world learning experience.

“Look at the solar through the course of the day and see how that peaks and see if there’s any correlation at all with cosmic ray collection data,” teacher Mike Cartwright suggested to one of his physics students recently.

In just a couple clicks on the computer, Cartwright can pull up data on how much energy the panels are producing at a given time. Meanwhile, the school district expects to save $1 million on its utility bills in the next 25 years from six different solar projects scattered throughout the north-metro district.

“It’s a no-lose for the school district,” Cartwright said. “We’re collecting energy, we’re doing carbon offsets, we can use it educationally, and it’s good public relations.”

Lowering costs, reducing pollution loads, and educational utility — okay, that is straight out multifaceted win space.

As to potential lost opportunity, these systems are not ‘micro-grid’: with (limited) battery back-up and power management enabling grid responsiveness (storing power when electricity is cheap, sending to grid when expensive along with demand response and managing to reducing peak demand charges) and stabilization/quality support.  These paths could — on the same sort of ‘no dollars upfront’ — save the school systems even more money while acting to help overall grid quality and resiliency.  As to resiliency, schools are typically shelters for disaster circumstances. Having facilities — schools — with limited capacity for continued operations during black-outs (whether natural or man-made) increases a community’s ability to deal with disaster. (For a concept related to this, see the decade-old Energize America draft Continuity of Community Services Act.)

As to problems to address/solve, the Minnesota rate and legal structure (which, upfront, not expert) constrains where and how such solar deployments can occur.  In the briefest terms, if the school is served by Xcel Energy, the #s look great for solar deployments … served by others (such as electric cooperatives), then they don’t.  This is addressable, solvable even — though seems to require focused leadership at the state level from someone who understands clean energy, has contacts/dealings across the state, and is well-prepared to help foster win-win solution spaces.  Honestly, from afar, this something tailor-made for  Rebecca Otto (see discussion of Otto’s “powering Minnesota to prosperity through energy leadership” platform) to address if (after) she is elected Governor in 2018.




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Tags: schools · solar