HAWLEY, Minn. - Jane Anderson could've bought a new pickup, but she had another bright idea for what to buy with that money - 72 solar panels that could make enough electricity to offset her home and business power needs.
Anderson, owner of The Groom Room dog boarding and grooming business east of Hawley, said she's always been curious about solar but assumed it was unaffordable.
Her opinion recently changed, especially after a friend gave her an article about solar power becoming more affordable, so she hired Ryan Glenz of Solar Specialties last month to install the 72-panel array at the entrance to her farm.
Even before it was wired in and generating power, the array was hard to miss - at about 120 feet in length, the connected panels are rated to produce as much as 23.7 kilowatts.
For Anderson and other small-business owners like her, the environmental benefits of solar power often aren't as enticing as the financial savings it can bring in the years to come.
"I think it's kind of like a secret weapon towards retirement costs," she said.
Glenz said customers can expect to pay about $75,000 to get a solar array like the one Anderson now has. But that number quickly starts to drop - in her case, to around $30,000 - when tax and energy savings enter the picture.
She said she'll get an energy tax credit of 30 percent of her cost for five years, bringing her out-of-pocket costs down, and she can depreciate the solar panels as business equipment.
Anderson said the investment also offers financial "stability," at least when it comes to her monthly utility bills that she said can exceed $600 in the winter because of electric heat for the dog kennels.
Anderson's system doesn't directly provide solar power to her home and business. Instead, the panels are wired into provider Wild Rice Electric Cooperative's grid, and the company will pay her the market rate for any additional power the panels generate in a year beyond the power she actually uses.
Even if there isn't extra power to sell, she said this lets her lock in energy rates. Her costs for generating this much power will remain the same for the 25-year warrantied lifespan of the solar panels, adding up to another big savings as utility rates rise during that time.
Another bonus, she said, is the boost it gives to her house equity, an important consideration whenever she's ready to sell and retire.
Anderson credits Randy Behrens, who operates Behrens Construction on a farm not far away, for helping her figure out what she needed for her business. In April, an even larger 40-kilowatt solar array was installed near his home.
"I'm using it as an asset to my business," he said.
Behrens, too, said he was enticed by the ability to stabilize part of his business costs while also helping the environment.
"I work out of my home so for me by locking in my utility costs, it is also a monthly expense that I don't have to look at," he said.
Steve Haaven, CEO of Wild Rice Electric, said more cooperative customers are expressing interest in small-scale solar and wind farms to offset their power needs like this. He's fielded 17 calls from members just this year asking for information about it, and of those, three have since installed renewable energy for their home or business.
Still, he said the 15 or so small wind or solar operations now up and running in Wild Rice territory represent just a tiny fraction of the overall power consumed by customers. A member survey earlier this year gauging interest in the cooperative building a community solar project found there wasn't broad support for the idea.
For Anderson, the switch to solar has given her - and The Groom Room - a brighter financial future.
"If I save money on my electric bill, the fun thing is that I can put it back into my business and upgrade things," she said.