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Minnesota National Guard camp installs massive solar array, a $25 million project

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A solar panel is moved into position Tuesday on the 63-acre solar array at Camp Ripley. The Minnesota National Guard is about 75 percent complete with a $25 million solar panel project at Camp Ripley that is expected to make the base “net zero,” where it produces more electricity than it takes in. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Video2 / 2

CAMP RIPLEY—Crews are installing 3,600 solar panels a day to help the Minnesota National Guard capture the power of the sun.

Working in conjunction with Minnesota Power, the Guard is about 75 percent complete with a $25 million solar panel project at Camp Ripley that is expected to make the base "net zero" so it produces as much energy as it takes in.

On Tuesday, Clean Energy Resource Teams, a Minnesota sustainable energy coalition, held a symposium on Camp Ripley's sustainability projects and the array, including a tour of the panels themselves.

Marty Skoglund, Environmental Supervisor at Camp Ripley, told the crowd that the 63-acre solar array at the eastern edge of the camp will be the largest out of all National Guard bases in the country. He called teaming up with Minnesota Power "a partnership made in heaven" that had helped garner national attention for environmental initiatives in the state. "It's put Minnesota on the map," he said.

The new solar panels are only one part of the Guard's green energy initiatives, commended by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense. Existing geothermal wells power the new Education Building on base, and a biomass heating district to burn wood is also in the works. The base also encouraged recycling and conservation among individual soldiers and units, putting up hundreds of posters and organizing competitions to see who can be the most sustainable. In addition to all that, the camp will also have a microgrid project where it can control the grid on the base for more efficiency.

Although the base won't disconnect from the larger power grid as a result of completing the solar array, it does give it the ability to do so. Camp Ripley is designated as the secondary site for Minnesota's state government to operate from, in the event a terrorist attack or other disaster wipes out the Capitol and government buildings in St. Paul, so being able to produce its own power independent of the grid is a necessity in times of catastrophe.

The array is Minnesota Power's first utility-scale solar project in its coverage area—the electricity produced will go not just to Camp Ripley but to surrounding communities like Little Falls and Nisswa. The panels will generate a total of 17,000 megawatt hours per year, or enough for 2,000 customers.

Each thin film panel is about 2 feet by 4 feet, and the array will have 120,000 of them when it's finished. The sleek design helps snow slide off the panels, Kristopher Spenningsby of Minnesota Power said. That will come in handy, since the array has a projected 35-year lifespan—that is, 35 Minnesota winters.

The project was spurred on by the Minnesota Solar Jobs Act, passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2013. The law requires the state's utility companies—including Minnesota Power—to have at least 1.5 percent of their electricity production be from solar sources by 2020.

Spenningsby said choosing Camp Ripley as a site for their new solar power has a security advantage in being around thousands of trained soldiers.

"I don't worry at night about any vandalism taking place," he joked.

During the tour, attendees got to see the panels themselves, a short walk from the Education Building, on what used to a be a field where the camp stored gravel. Rows and rows of metal frames stood facing south like a cornfield, and crews were busy attaching the panels themselves to the skeletal frames. They used a forklift-like vehicle with small crane arms and what appeared to be suction cups to put the panels in place. The tour groups didn't linger too long in the open field, however—the heat of the sun beat directly down on them.

An official ribbon cutting is planned for Sept. 16.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 orZach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/ZWKayser.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
(218) 333-9791
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