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North-central Minnesota schools saving more than expected with solar panels

RREAL solar installation crews worked through the snowy winter to install solar panels on the roof of Pequot Lakes High School. Submitted photo

Now that the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts have wrapped up a long-awaited solar installation project, they are finding that cost savings estimates were conservative.

“We initially went in with an estimation of $20,000 to $25,000 a year, and right now we're experiencing almost $5,000 a month,” said Pine River-Backus Superintendent Dave Endicott. “We may see significantly more. That will fluctuate with, obviously, weather. We don't have much sun today so we aren't making as much today.”

The Pine River-Backus array was finished and implemented around Dec. 17, 2018, but even Pequot Lakes is seeing a higher savings.

“The solar panel system was turned on about two weeks ago,” said Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm. “In just a couple weeks it's produced about 21,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. That's enough to electrify five or six regular homes. We feel great. That's a little higher than the original estimates. It's going to reduce our energy costs maybe more than we expected.”

“The Pequot Lakes and Pine River sites are both performing really, really well at about 99.75 percent efficiency. It's going really well as far as their performance so far,” said Erica Bjelland, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance program development specialist. “Right now there have been a few projects throughout Minnesota that have been similar to this project, but this is the largest one in Minnesota that we are aware of. I think there is starting to be more interest in having this in different areas around Minnesota and this area. Right now, we'll see what happens.”

RREAL installed the solar panels.

These savings could increase as well. If electricity costs increase, Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus school districts will continue to pay the same contract price for their electricity, increasing the effective savings. For PR-B, the 2,244 ground-mounted solar panels account for 80% of the school's energy needs while in Pequot Lakes, the smaller roof array of 984 panels produces approximately 20%.

This is a long-awaited payoff for a project that began discussion in 2016. In the beginning, local districts reviewed the possibility of installing solar panels, but did so with high expectations. First, the school districts would only participate if it cost taxpayers nothing. Second, the school districts must be absolved of liabilities associated with the project. In the end, through an Xcel Energy grant, tax credit investor and lots of contract negotiations, they got what they needed.