Solar tour shines light on Minnesota's renewable resources
Nine Rochester area locations participated in the National Solar Tour earlier this month. The event -- which included more than 5,000 sites across the U.S. -- showcased homes, businesses and non-profit organizations that have increased their energy independence by installing solar panels and other renewable energy technologies.
According to the non-profit group, Minnesota Renewable Energy Society, renewable energy technologies allow individuals and businesses to drastically reduce harmful carbon emissions. Scientists say CO2 gases, primarily from coal-fired power plants, are the leading cause of global climate change. While several recent reports warn global cooperation is needed to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change, solar advocates say every small step can make a difference.
"People have really come aware in the last five years, I think, of the danger of carbon emissions," said Jeff Brober, a professional geologist who serves on the board of directors for Cascade Meadow. The wetland conservation area, which features a state-of-the-art science center, generates about 7 percent of its electricity and nearly all of its heat from renewable energy sources.
"If you look at the range of things that can be done from energy conservation, [such as] good insulation and good windows, to power generation for either your hot water or electric; people are beginning to see the economic benefit, as well."
The environmental impact of solar energy is practically non-existent. Unlike fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas, solar does not produce carbon, methane or particulate emissions. It also does not require mining, drilling or fracking.
The upfront cost is significant, preventing many working or middle class people from investing in solar energy. Rochester Public Utilities estimates the average residential system costs about $10,000 to $40,000.
There are some incentives, though, from RPU and the government. RPU offers a rebate of $0.50 per watt for solar electric systems (up to $5,000). The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit, which is set to expire in 2016. There are no incentives from the state of Minnesota.
RPU estimates the average residential system pays for itself in the 8 to 12 year range. However, that's dependent on the size and type of the system, the cost of other forms of energy, how much energy the home uses and whether the homeowner had to take out a loan (and pay interest) to install the system.
Rochester city council member Michael Wojcik installed a solar panel system in 2012 for a cost of about $11,000 after tax credits and rebates. The panels now produce more energy than the house uses, earning him back about $800 per year from RPU.
"It's just like putting granite countertops in your home, except granite countertops would have to write you a check every month, like these things are basically doing."
On the northwest side of Rochester, Matt Mattingly installed 36 solar panels on top of their home and garage about 15 months ago. Referring to the sun's rays as "pennies from heaven," he expects the solar system to pay for itself in about 20 years. That's because, like Wojcik, Mattingly's energy production exceeds his use, meaning he gets a check in the mail each month (except for the bitter cold months of January through March) from RPU.
One might assume the biggest challenge for the solar industry in Minnesota would be a lack of sunlight. But according to RPU, the state actually receives as much sunlight as Florida and Texas and gets more sunlight than Germany, the world's leader in solar energy.
So the challenge is not so much about latitude as it is about each home's particular location. A roof that faces south without any obstructions will produce more energy than a roof that faces north and has buildings and trees blocking the sun. For people in urban or heavily-wooded areas, that means a solar system could be a poor long-term investment.
"People nowadays can buy into solar farms and do what they call net metering," said Brober. "That's another option for people who are interested in deriving their power from the sun."
The best way to find out if your home is suitable energy is to have an installation company (many users we spoke to referred us to Solar Connection) come to your home or business for an evaluation.
But before you do, check to see with your neighborhood association (if you have one) to see if there are any regulations prohibiting solar panels. Wojcik was sued by his neighborhood association for installing his solar system, though he says the move was politically motivated.
"I know first-hand, you always have the potential of having some unhappy neighbors. So you have to make sure if you have any covenants or restrictions, you dot your 'I's and cross your 'T's beforehand."