November 9, 2009

Minnesota’s “Solar in the Cities” Initiative: Solar is alive and well in Minnesota

By: Jane Pulaski When the U.S. Department of Energy issued its solicitation in 2008 for the second round of funding for Solar America Cities, the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul decided to join forces and go in together, and won. What makes the Twin Cities’ Solar America Cities work so interesting is that it’s…

photo credit - (c)Bruce Schnack Photography
photo credit - (c)Bruce Schnack Photography

By: Jane Pulaski

When the U.S. Department of Energy issued its solicitation in 2008 for the second round of funding for Solar America Cities, the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul decided to join forces and go in together, and won. What makes the Twin Cities’ Solar America Cities work so interesting is that it’s two cities with one goal: to develop a comprehensive systemic, city-wide approach to implementing solar technologies for homes and businesses in the Twin Cities by 2015. In 2008, the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, with their ‘Solar in the Cities’ initiative, were named a Solar America City by the U.S. Department of Energy.  Or cities.

It’s challenging enough for one city to reach consensus among its decision makers or to navigate the maze of city infrastructure policies and regulations, but to get anything done with two different sets of policies and practices?

“We’ve worked with joint initiatives before,” said Anne Hunt, Environmental Policy Director for the City of Saint Paul. “The mayors of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been working closely together on other green issues, like building the light rail between our two cities and developing similar green building policies. We had to have resolutions between both city councils, but our teaming up was a natural, logical partnership, and we believed our partnership would not only help DOE meet its market transformation goals, but would be an innovative way to maximize resources in a region. Coordinating and communicating between staff time remains a challenge, but it’s proven to be a successful working relationship. Actually, I feel like the Solar America Cities Initiative is a natural link that has strengthened our Twin Cities partnership. What’s even more interesting is that I’ve known Gayle Prest, Sustainability Manager at the City of Minneapolis, since college.”

Since its award in 2008, the ‘Solar in the Cities’ initiative has been working on three main activities:

  • Build a solar infrastructure leading to a quintupling of market penetration of solar capacity in the Twin Cities by 2010;
  • Develop a long-term strategic plan for the sustainable large scale deployment of solar technologies in the Twin Cities by 2015; and
  • Demonstrate leadership by example by expanding the use of solar technologies in public buildings.

Check, check, check.

Several local organizations and businesses are part of the team, including District Energy, NRG Thermal LLC, Xcel Energy, Center for Energy and Environment, freEner-g, Fresh Energy, Green Institute, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Minnesota Department of Commerce, Minnesota Renewable Energy Society and Neighborhood Energy Connection.

The Twin Cities initiative plans to quintuple the current solar capacity by next year.

“Right now, there’s only 1.4MW in the entire state,” said Hunt. “But we’ve got so much going on, we’re on track to meet that goal.”

A pending RFP for a 600kW PV installation atop the Minneapolis Convention Center will make a large contribution to that goal.

Then, earlier this summer, DOE requested proposals from the 25 Solar America Cites that would ramp-up innovative programs so they can be tested in the broader market place, increasing the likelihood of replication in other U.S. cities. Once again, the Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis teamed up to respond, and once again, they were successful. Their proposal: to use solar thermal in the cities district energy system.

A district energy system takes thermal energy (heating or cooling) from one or more sources and distributes it to multiple customers through a piping distribution network. District energy systems have proven to be the most efficient model for generation and distribution of electrical and thermal energy in urban environments.

“We brainstormed about different projects for the proposal,” said Hunt, “but we thought that since both Saint Paul and Minneapolis have district energy systems (District Energy St. Paul and NRG Energy Center Minneapolis), it offered a great opportunity to use solar thermal energy in a Solar America Cities project. Lots of Solar America Cities projects are PV; we wanted to do something different, and it was a technology that made sense for us. We think it’s a great way to show how solar thermal energy can be used in other cities with district energy systems.”

The proposed solar thermal installation is 1MW solar thermal equivalent, which represents almost a 67% increase in the state’s solar energy capacity, will become Minnesota’s largest solar power source when installed on the roof of the Saint Paul RiverCentre in 2010. According to Hunt, the installation could be a hybrid of PV and solar thermal technology.

Is it coincidental that Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota is offering solar hot water installer training, or planned coordination?

Actually, it’s a little bit of both.

“Century College had plans underway to offer solar thermal and solar PV courses before Minneapolis Saint Paul was named a Solar America City,” said Stacy Miller, Minnesota Office of Energy Security. But beginning in the Spring 2010, Century will offer Advanced Solar Thermal Concepts, with an accompanying lab.

“My students are not typically working in the trades, so while they won’t be working on that installation, they will be getting their hands-on experience with other solar thermal installations.  We may launch the same thing for PV in the fall 2010. An internship through Century will help us to get students connected with local installers and eventually NABCEP certification.”

Demand for quality solar PV and solar thermal installers should continue to be brisk. Minnesota’s current state rebate program, partly funded by Xcel Energy is $1.75/W DC and $2/W DC (for installations made by NABCEP-certified installers). Available in July 2009, it’s fully reserved. However, the state is still accepting applications anticipating an additional $3 million pending federal ARRA funds.

Accomplishments aside, Hunt said that challenges for solar in Minnesota still exist.

“We’ve spent lots of time and resources on wind and some on biomass and people seem to understand those technologies-that they make sense here in Minnesota, but it seems counterintuitive to people when we talk about solar,” she said. In fact, Minneapolis Saint Paul is one of six Solar America Cities located in the northern part of the U.S.

Hunt credits the federal team with helping Minneapolis Saint Paul deliver the solar message in Minnesota.

“For us, it’s really been a privilege to work with DOE. Bringing people like DOE’s Charlie Hemmeline and NREL’s Jason Coughlin in to educate our policy makers and the public about the benefits of solar in Minnesota…it’s been a huge help for us. We used the Tiger Team to help us with a net metering study, we used DOE’s recent ‘Solar Powering Your Community: A Guide for Local Governments–they’ve been working so closely with us from the very beginning. They’re a phenomenal resource for Solar America Cities. “