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Citizen Zane: Time to Consider Solar?

* Note:  My first column for a local community arts newspaper. Cross posted from   http://reverb.mn/

///   by: Zane Zodrow – Wednesday Feb. 19th, 2014   ///

Rochester, Minnesota would probably not be one of the first places that spring to mind when thinking of locations where solar electricity generation may be a good idea. Florida, Arizona, or California would obviously be more effective areas to build solar capacity. However, I have done quite a bit of research on ‘alternative’ energy over the past twenty years or so, and many interesting things have been happening, especially over the past several years.

Solar and wind power installations have been increasing greatly in Germany, as well as in Europe overall. As one example, photovoltaic solar power produced approximately 5% of Germany’s total electricity consumed in 2013. In researching this further, I discovered that Germany’s 5 largest solar farms are near Berlin, in the Northeast part of the country. Using a couple different resources, I came up with the average annual solar insolation for Berlin. (Insolation being the overall solar energy reaching the ground at a given location.) Using this data and comparing it to insolation levels for Rochester from the same source, I discovered we get approximately 35% more total solar energy here in an average year than they do in Berlin.

Solar power in Germany is heavily subsidized, and the overall situation differs from the U.S. However, It bears noting that all forms of large scale electrical generation used in the U.S. are subsidized to some extent by taxpayers. Further research shows that the overall cost of solar installations in the U.S. have been dropping rapidly over the past few years, and are now often approaching $3 per watt, or even a bit less. At average Minnesota electricity rates, payback of total installation cost on a photovoltaic solar array in Southeast Minnesota is now roughly in the 16 – 22 year range, while it may be 5-10 years in California, where electricity rates and insolation are much higher. If one figures a 30-40 year lifetime for a typical installation, solar is getting to be financially advantageous, in addition to it’s other real benefits.

Fine, you say, but nobody wants to be on the bleeding edge of technology, right? Is anyone else in Minnesota ‘going solar’? The average residential solar installation size in the U.S. has been gradually rising, and is now around 6,000 watts capacity per system. According to data available from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there have been 109 photovoltaic solar installations with a 10,000 watt or greater capacity installed in Minnesota within the past five years. These systems would represent the larger residential and commercial installations, with an average capacity per system of 61,000 watts. One system included in this data was over 1 million watts, and one was 2 million watts. This seems to indicate solar power in Minnesota is a viable alternative after all.

Rooftop installation of solar panels works well, and is often the preferred location for residential and commercial installations. There are obviously plenty of roofs in the area well suited for solar installations, such as houses, warehouses, hospitals, farm buildings, office buildings, stores, and malls. However, photovoltaic arrays can also be free-standing, in any open, unshaded area. One local spot that may work well for this type of setup is the open land around IBM, for example. Or maybe some low lying areas or wetlands, one could mount the solar panels chest high, and let plants and critters live underneath and in between them. Highway ramps, cloverleafs, and highway right of ways seem to be underutilized, though allowing enough space for proper safety would be necessary. How about parking lots and over the top of parking ramps? Install some nine foot tall scaffolding and let the cars park under the solar panels. The Rochester airport seems well suited for solar as well.

Money is tight these days, and even with the decreasing costs, an average sized residential system can cost over $20,000, a pretty big hit up front for a typical area homeowner, even with any available rebates, tax breaks, etc. Some local organizations may be doing themselves a favor by investigating the benefits of a large local solar installation, or perhaps several smaller ones. Rochester Public Utilities, Mayo, IBM, Apache Mall, Crenlo, and any hotel or motel come to mind as good candidates. As long as the financial aspect makes sense, any business may find advantage in positioning itself as an ecologically conscious operation, and realizing the public relations benefit which comes with renewable energy.


Zane Zodrow is a lifelong Rochester resident, married with 3 children, and a local business owner.

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