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The Carletonian

A Bright Future for Solar

<urce of renewable energy is taking root just down the road from Carleton’s two wind turbines.

Last month, the City of Northfield agreed to the construction of a solar garden as part of an initiative to explore environmentally-sound energy options. Much like community gardens, solar gardens are divvied up into small sections that the public can purchase through subscriptions.

Households and businesses in Rice and neighboring counties can buy up to 30 half-panel sections (nicknamed “leaves”) or 120% of their current metered usage. Each leaf costs $889.

Erica Zweifel, City Council member and cofounder of Northfield Area Community Solar, is one of two local women spearheading the idea, which first emerged after last January’s Climate Summit. She is enthusiastic about the interest the community shows in the project. “So far, we’ve had about 50 local Xcel (a utility company) customers sign up.”

The array in mind will cover between four and five acres. A solar garden of that size can generate roughly one megawatt of clean electricity in a year – enough to power between 250 and 400 homes.

“One important goal of ours is to not take any ag land out of use,” said Zweifel. The solar array will be constructed on four non-arable acres at Eastgate Farms, located about 1.5 miles east of campus.

“Given our current models,” said Zweifel, referring to those made by the installer, Minnesota Community Solar, “energy costs are expected to go up 2.75 percent per year… meaning that [a “leaf”] will pay for itself in about eighteen years.” Subscriptions are 25 years long.

Solar power made its debut on campus in 2009, when Cassat and James Halls had rooftop solar cells installed. At this time, it is not known whether the College will seek involvement in the Northfield solar garden.

Xcel Energy has worked with solar gardens in Colorado, but it wasn’t until legislation was passed in 2013 that Minnesota required the company to buy solar electricity. Since then, a handful of solar gardens have grown up in and around the Twin Cities.

Grassroots campaigns for solar energy are a boon to Dustin Denison, co-founder of MNCS, who sees them as essential to “democratizing energy.” The company’s website even boasts that “this is solar for everyone.”

“We’re giving [Northfielders] another choice, is what it is,” explained Zweifel. “You can go with coal, which Xcel offers you, or wind – wind is always an option in Minnesota! And now you have the choice of getting some of your energy with solar.”

Critics of solar energy often cite expensiveness as a major drawback. Indeed, the installation is expected to cost $3.5 million. This figure will be covered through subscriptions and underwritten by other investors, rather than by increased taxes.

Of course, solar panels are not carbon-neutral; taking their production into consideration, the average panel generates about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. However, that’s only 7% of what a kilowatt of electricity derived from fossil fuels would release.

Community solar gardens do have their advantages over rooftop systems. “Renters, condo owners, apartment residents and home owners with shaded property are now all able to generate solar electricity,” proclaims MNCS.

It is definitely true that Northfield’s early transition to renewable fuel sources puts them on the “bleeding edge” of expensive new technology. At the same time, it also demonstrates public commitment to problems of energy production.

Work on the array will begin as soon as the sun is out this spring. The plan is to be converting the solar rays into clean energy by the end of summer.

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