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Solar panels on schools: Not everyone agrees it’s such a bright idea

The DFL and GOP have allocated differing amounts to a program that gives grants to Minnesota schools looking to install solar arrays.

solar arrays
Both the DFL-led House and the Republican-controlled Senate booked money in their budget plans to give schools grants or other subsidies to make building solar arrays easier.
MinnPost file photo by Tony Nelson

In 2008, Pat Collins set out to build solar panels on Chisago Lakes Middle School as a project with students in his science classes. To meet their initial $100,000 goal, they threw dances, sold t-shirts, raised trees in a garden and sold them to homeowners and even held a 5K race, Collins told a House panel in January.

By 2010, the school had raised enough money to build a 44-panel system. But the projects didn’t stop there. A few years later, with the help of grants and other programs, the district had built solar on all five on its buildings and now has 15,000 panels they lease or own. Collins said that is good enough for 110 percent solar power and cost savings worth millions of dollars.

“We’re teaching kids that you can save a lot of money, we’re teaching kids this is good for the environment,” he said. “But in the world we live in today … we’re teaching kids that they’re David and maybe climate change is Goliath and that through their actions I think they can win.”

Chisago Lakes is an outlier in Minnesota. But state lawmakers are hoping to make it easier for other schools to follow in the district’s footsteps. Both the DFL-led House and the Republican-controlled Senate booked money in their budget plans to give schools grants or other subsidies to make building solar arrays easier.

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Some in the GOP have criticized the idea, saying it’s not a cost-effective way to fight climate change. But Rep. Jamie Long, a Minneapolis DFLer and Vice Chair of the House’s Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division, said building solar on schools can still help districts save money and serve as a powerful teaching tool so students can have a “better understanding for what renewable energy is all about.”

The program basics

The “Solar for Schools” program is a centerpiece of the House DFL’s energy and climate budget proposal. The latest iteration of the plan would spend $16.6 million over the next two years to help K-12 schools build solar.

Nearly all of that money — $16 million to be exact — would only be available to schools in Xcel Energy’s service area, which includes the Twin Cities metro area, Mankato, Moorhead and more. That’s because subsidy cash would come from the state’s Renewable Development Account, which is funded by Xcel as payment for storing nuclear waste in Minnesota.

Another $600,000 in money from the state’s general fund would fund grants for schools to build solar projects elsewhere around the state.

David Shaffer, the executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group with 111 members doing business in the state, estimated the general fund money might help build 10 or so systems with a capacity of 40 kilowatts, the highest energy amount allowed under that program. Shaffer said the average school served by members of his organization builds a solar energy system with about 250 to 300 kilowatts of capacity. The MSEIA has lobbied for solar-for-schools bills at the Legislature.

The money in the Xcel fund, on the other hand, could help roughly 60 schools subsidize solar projects, Shaffer predicted. A school must have one megawatt or less of capacity or 120 percent of their energy needs from an on-site solar array or from a stake in community solar gardens to be eligible for financial help from Xcel’s program.

There is a small twist to each program. At least half of the money would have to go to schools in which a majority of students get federally subsidized lunches, and must be spread out between school districts.

A spokesman for Xcel said 82 schools have already installed solar panels through an existing program that incentivizing small-scale solar in homes and businesses, called Solar*Rewards. Another 100 schools have submitted applications, according to Xcel.

A bad way to fight climate change?

The solar-for-schools plans have not won over every lawmaker in St. Paul. “In terms of reducing pollution and saving money, it’s a complete failure,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. Garofalo serves on Long’s committee, and once chaired an energy committee in the House when it was under GOP control.

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The Republican said small-scale operations are more expensive and produce energy at a higher cost. While an individual school may save money, Garofalo said the mechanics of the system force Xcel to purchase some of the solar power from schools, and at a retail rate higher than it costs to get energy from a typical large-scale source. That would make energy more pricey for everyone else, he said.

“The most cost-effective solar is when you go into non-productive land and you just put a whole bunch of solar panels up in one area,” Garofalo said. “It’s going to produce the most energy at the lowest amount of price.” Building at a larger scale to create more clean energy reduces more pollution, he added.

Shaffer, of the solar trade group, said he agreed that large, utility-scale solar is the best option if the goal is to “try to just reduce carbon emissions for the cheapest price possible.”

Even so, the Republican-led Senate pledged $2 million in their budget proposal for the solar-for-schools program out of Xcel’s RDA money. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said the they didn’t offer as much money as the House in part because the program was competing with other priorities, but also because they wanted to give it a limited test run to “see where it goes.” Osmek chairs the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

State Sen. David Osmek
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
State Sen. David Osmek, right, discussing the solar-for-schools program on Monday.
He stressed schools can still participate in the state’s community solar garden program, in which organizations or people can buy into shared plots of solar.

“I think this is the beginning,” Osmek told reporters on Monday. “I think we should take a … short first step” instead of ramping up the program to match the House’s $16 million, he added. Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposal booked $20 million from the Xcel fund to help schools build solar energy systems.

Supporters see value anyway

Shaffer said the solar program still has value beyond fighting climate change, such as curbing energy costs for schools, some of which may be facing budget deficits. Long, the Minneapolis DFLer, noted energy can be one of a school’s highest bills. He also said the program limits the amount of energy a school can produce so they aren’t routinely selling excess energy back to Xcel.

In a prepared statement forwarded by a spokesman, Xcel didn’t take a concrete stance on the legislation, but said they’re “excited to work with schools to increase their sustainability through energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

The House and Senate are in the process of negotiating a final two-year budget plan. The Legislature is set to adjourn May 20.

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Collins, the Chisago Lakes middle school teacher, told the House panel in January there was immense value in his school’s push to build solar panels. He urged the state to encourage other schools to get in the solar game.

“I think we teach kids innovation, empowerment —  I think we teach them that things aren’t easy and you have to work really hard at it,” Collins said. “I think you teach them that they can change the world; To not accept things as they are; That solar’s a no brainer; That we build community.

“And we allocate resources perhaps to other venues if we don’t have to pay for power,” he said.