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Minnesota's Do-It-Yourself Solar Movement Explodes

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By Matt Grimley

A zebra pelt stretches along the wood panel walls of Ed Eichten's man cave. Kudu and warthog skulls stare over framed photos of safaris past. Louis L'Amour and American history fill a bookcase. In some small way, it's still the frontier on this Center City farm.

Joe and Mary, Ed's parents, are from a frontier of sorts. They learned to make gouda cheese in Holland in the 1970s. Just inside their sprawling metal shed of a cheese factory is a world map darted with pins that run from Russia to South Africa, representing the homelands of those who've visited the Eichtens' farm, hoping to learn how they make their cheese.

Sixteen employees run their hands through milky vats, lifting heavy rounds of all-natural gouda to drying racks. Some 1,500 pounds are pushed out each week.

Outside, bison munch in the pasture. That was Ed's idea. He bought his first at an auction at Blue Mounds State Park outside of Luverne in 1987. His father said it was crazy.

Eichten admits it was a gamble, but he jumped in ahead of the curve, selling free-range bison meat before it grew fashionable. He sells it at his own restaurant at the foot of his gravel driveway. The menu has everything from egg scrambles to buffalo meat.

Ed Eichten, owner of Hidden Acres farm in Center City, where his solar array produces enough energy to power one-third of his cheese factory.

Ed Eichten, owner of Hidden Acres farm in Center City, where his solar array produces enough energy to power one-third of his cheese factory.

"I always tease people that basically I'm a hay farmer," Eichten laughs under squinting eyes. "I just raise hay and push it through buffalo. Goes in one end and out the other."

Two years ago, he jumped ahead of another curve. Eichten was approached by Wayne Erickson. The pair worked together at 3M before Ed returned full time to the farm. Erickson was now a sales rep for Innovative Power Systems, and he was pitching the newfound thrift of solar energy.

The price of solar panels was plummeting by more than 10 percent a year. And government, hoping to wean the nation off its servitude to fossil fuels, was offering tax credits, rebates, and assistance to those willing to make it happen.

Eichten held a farmer's sense of self-sufficiency — not to mention a vacant field too small to make a respectable bison pasture.

A 40-kilowatt solar array now calls the meadow home. It's about twice the height of a person, with two rows of navy panels extended as far as an out-of-shape adult can throw a football.

In a plywood lean-to outside his cheese factory, Eichten taps his finger on an electric meter. Digitized numbers bounce near 1,400 watts, representing incoming energy. The panels produce about one-third of the factory's electricity needs. Within seven years, the savings on his electric bill will outstrip his expenses. The useless field will be making him money.

Since the panels collect even the tiniest bits of light, "the beauty of it is it works every day of the year," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's snowing, raining, or what."

The venture worked so well that Eichten is about to launch another. This spring, along with hundreds of Minnesotans, he will begin hosting a solar garden, harnessing the power of the sun for those who cannot.

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A sunpower explosion in the frozen north

Perhaps your roof tilts awkwardly or lacks a direct hook-up to the sun. For these reasons and others, fewer than one in five Minnesota homes are suitable for solar panels.

So in 2013, the legislature chose to help the have-nots. It passed the Solar Energy Jobs Act, mandating that large utilities like Xcel Energy get at least 1.5 percent of their electricity from the sun by 2020. Xcel was ordered to launch a solar garden program for its 1.2 million Minnesota customers.

It's a simple concept: Anyone can build an array of panels, which pump solar energy into Xcel's grid. For a one-time fee — which usually lands at about $1,000 — neighbors can become something akin to co-op members in these gardens. The sunpower generated each month is then credited against their collective energy bills.

Over a 25-year subscription, members are reimbursed at rates higher than the cost of conventional electricity, a state-mandated bonus for going green. They typically break even sometime after a decade, and eventually save up to 30 percent on their monthly bills.

Xcel initially projected these gardens would create 100 megawatts in the first year, enough to power a small town. But when the program opened in December, that forecast was obliterated. The company was inundated by 427 proposals, representing enough juice to equal an upstart power plant. Solar was about to come to Minnesota in a big way.

Eichten's garden will bud when the snow clears. He ultimately agreed to the project because the dollars are right. Hosting a garden will bring in twice the money he'd get from renting the land to another farmer. For an aging farmer looking beyond his man cave, it meant a cleaner shot in his hunt for retirement.

John Perron says subscribing to a solar garden could eventually save his employer, a retirement home in Chisago City, $17,000 on its yearly electric bill.

John Perron says subscribing to a solar garden could eventually save his employer, a retirement home in Chisago City, $17,000 on its yearly electric bill.

The greening of the Ole-and-Lena corridor

An old woman knits scarves for sale. Elderly diners speak in hushed tones, their cutlery clinking with the musicality of raindrops. John Perron emerges from the front office in bright red Nikes and with a large ring of keys jangling from his belt.

He's the director of environmental services for Ecumen Parmly LifePointes, a nursing home in Chisago City. His buzzcut and fullback build befit the size of his job: keeping hundreds of seniors in 80-degree comfort through blizzards and heat waves.

Parmly's footprint covers seven and a half blocks. There are more than a hundred resident rooms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool requiring 90-degree water. It's the second-largest electricity consumer along the Ole-and-Lena corridor of Chisago City, Lindstrom, and Center City.

Parmly has long searched for energy savings. So when Mary Eichten happened to mention her son's solar garden during a visit to the facility, Perron got on the phone. He discovered that a membership in Eichten's solar garden could cut Parmly's yearly energy bill by $17,000.

Co-workers and residents were originally reluctant. They presumed the move would require unsightly panels jutting from the roof, or an even uglier power line stretching to Eichten's farm. But when Perron explained that the savings could be had entirely on paper, the light dawned.

Memberships in Eichten's garden sold out last fall. In the meantime, solar has detonated in the land of lutefisk and leftse.

Pastor Brenda Froisland says the decision to provide solar power to her church's south Minneapolis neighborhood was a no-brainer.

Pastor Brenda Froisland says the decision to provide solar power to her church's south Minneapolis neighborhood was a no-brainer.

The Chisago City schools planted panels on their roofs. Teachers use them in classrooms. The liquor store in Lindstrom has them, too. Even a hardware store owner wants to join a solar garden.

He'll have a wide selection. Eleven new gardens have been proposed for construction in Chisago County this year.

"If this continues to work this town will instantly... everybody will jump on board," Perron says. "There's no naysayers or anything. Everybody's excited."

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A web of light across the countryside

It's freezing in Rushford. A mean wind blows along the river bluffs of southeast Minnesota, echoing with the hush of snow.

Bob Redig shoves his hands in his pockets and grits his teeth. He's standing in front of Tri-County Electric Cooperative's solar garden, its rows of panels teeter-tottering above the ground, snow sloping like glaciers on smooth blue faces.

At 68, Redig is a semi-retired electrician, only doing jobs for neighbors and long-time customers. He talks of teaching agriculture for the Peace Corps in India as a young man, then working with wounded soldiers in Vietnam. Life has taught him that a person is capable of anything, good and bad.

He lives on his family farm just south of Winona. The pasture used to house cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks. Now it's just grass, which he cuts for feed.

Last summer, he and his wife paid $1,400 for a membership in Tri-County Electric's solar garden, a half-hour from their farm. It only saved him $10 off his October electric bill, a tiny fraction of the up-front cost. It will take more than a decade for a return on his investment.

Redig is fine with that. Tri-County needed his support. And as he sees it, somebody needed to put their money where their mouth is.

"That's the big thing about the cooperative," he says. "It isn't me. It's us, which I like as a community."

His parents bought the farm in 1939 for $4,000. The nation was still emerging from the Great Depression; most farms in the area didn't have power. Everything was done by hand, wind turbines, and gasoline motors. If you wanted power, you had to cough up the dough to string a power line to your house at a cost well beyond most farmers' means.

The Tri-County Electric Cooperative formed by pooling the money of rural people to build lines throughout southeast Minnesota, creating a web of light through hill and prairie. Unlike investor-owned utilities, the cooperative returns any profits to its members.

Today, Tri-County serves more than 13,000 homes and businesses. It opened its solar garden last summer, one of many planted by co-ops around Minnesota.

Members wanted clean, locally produced energy, says Vice President Ted Kjos. Initial membership sold out, so Tri-County doubled the size of its garden, which is also close to selling out. Kjos is already scouting locations for more solar projects.

As renewable energy becomes cheaper and technology advances, he believes utilities like Xcel will be forced to change. Huge coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants will witness the nightfall of an era as farmers and city folk alike become more self-sufficient. His solar garden is evidence.

"The playing field has really changed."

Solar reaches into Xcel's pocket

Xcel, Minnesota's largest utility, is welcoming this change — in part because the cost of renewable energy is falling rapidly, in part because it has no choice.

State law dictates that it must add at least 300 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, enough to light Winona. That means Minnesota's output must increase by 30 times over, with huge new gardens that will make Tri-County's look like a dainty bouquet.

At the moment, coal accounts for a little less than half of our energy. Nuclear amounts to a little more than 20 percent. While Minnesota can't compete with the sunny skies of Arizona or Hawaii, it promises to be the strongest solar market in the Midwest, says John Farrell.

He's a number-cruncher with the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Farrell is a fountain of ideas, swinging with dexterity between anecdotes about heated-gravel batteries to how Minnesota can grab 20 percent of its energy through rooftop solar alone.

The new gardens are a start at placing power in the people's hands. Community-owned energy keeps monthly electric payments at home, instead of sending them to distant investors. But while that may be good for everyday Minnesotans, it is not good for Xcel.

"The beancounters at Xcel are looking at this and saying, 'Whenever somebody puts up a solar panel, it just shows up as less sales on our balance sheet,'" says Farrell. "And less sales is less revenue."

The construction of new power plants — where a utility really makes its money, getting a state-sanctioned 10 percent return — could be replaced by solar and other home-based sources.

In coming years, Xcel may be at a loss for how to make money for its investors. But whether executives like it or not, that day is coming.

The Right to Make Energy

Xcel, like most investor-owned utilities, has a monopoly guaranteed by law. It sells, and you have no choice but to buy.

Such monopolies usually come equipped with some heavy-handed political influence, which is why so few states are leaping into alternative energy. Of the 18 states that have either enacted community solar or are considering it, all place limits on the growth of gardens to protect utility profits. Minnesota decided otherwise.

Xcel originally fought the state's plan to allow for unlimited gardens, claiming a smaller program would be easier to manage. The Public Utilities Commission refused.

"I think Minnesota is really putting ourselves on the map for this," says Ellen Anderson, a former Democratic state senator representing St. Paul and Falcon Heights.

Anderson was chairwoman of the PUC before Republicans booted her from the post in 2012. They were alarmed by her advocacy of renewable energy. She'd authored a law mandating that utilities get at least 25 percent of their energy from clean sources.

Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont) spoke for the entrenched forces of fossil fuels at the time. "Her outright rejection of energy sources that built this country and helped foster the highest living standards in the world is irresponsible," said Rosen.

Anderson is now executive director of the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota, where she helps create new energy projects. One benefit of solar gardens, she says, is the dispersal of our electric grid, making it more stable. They add juice during peak use in the heat of the summer, and fill in during power plant outages.

"All of us are pretty surprised at how fast community solar is exploding," she says. "All these new companies are coming to town, opening up shop to take advantage of the markets."

At least one town is wary. Xcel owns a nuclear plant in Monticello. It's also the city's biggest property taxpayer. Perhaps not coincidentally, Monticello passed a one-year moratorium in November on using land primarily for solar. Council members worry that the projects would produce fewer jobs or tax revenues than a conventional business.

More common is Gaylord, where city administrator Kevin McCann describes a planned garden as a "huge benefit."

Either way, says Anderson, it's only a matter of time before it becomes economically competitive with fossil fuels. At that point, it won't be a matter of environmentalism. It will be at the crux of economic survival.

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In south Minneapolis, a renewable church

Ted Allison first attended services at Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis some 28 years ago, when he moved to the Bancroft neighborhood after his son was born.

He and his wife live a few blocks from Bethel, whose sharp roof lines rise above Bloomington Avenue. El Colegio High School rests nearby, its wall muraled with dancing people wreathed in kaleidoscopic bolts of color. Down the street, a man walks his ponchoed terriers. A house around the corner boasts a giant, scarved giraffe in the yard.

It's an eclectic neighborhood, to say the least.

Last year, Allison was laid off from Jazz 88, where he raised cash for the nonprofit radio station. He'd spent four decades on the job, steadily climbing the ladder, only to have it tip over at the end. At 60, he's going back to college.

He was reluctant to join Bethel's solar project at first. "It looks good for the environment and all, but you're only getting 6 percent [back] on your bill every month," he says.

Yet he and his wife eventually put down a $250 deposit. They will pay another $500 when the garden opens. Allison's still hesitant about the cash, but he's convinced himself of the long view.

"It's just a matter of time, people getting to understand how it all works," he says. "It's a real simple concept. People just gotta buy into it."

Outside Bethel, a sign urges neighbors to "Love others, care for the Earth, and try not to be a jerk." Inside the rainbow-draped sanctuary, Pastor Brenda Froisland laughs that her church is built on a swamp. That's why the solar garden will be erected on the roof of the cafeteria, not in the parking lot.

In 2008, she was the subject of her own City Pages story, when church policy forbade her and other homosexual seminarians from joining the clergy. At the time, Froisland was Bethel's youth and family minister, but her position was eliminated due to budget constraints.

Bethel called back in 2012, asking that she be its pastor. The ban on gay clergy had ended.

Froisland immediately expanded outreach programs. A parishioner told her the church needed to "grow their garden." So when she was approached about hosting a solar garden, she giggled at what the Holy Spirit had wrought.

It will allow the church to eventually save on its electricity bill. The savings will then be parlayed into other environmental projects like a rain garden and permeable pavers for the parking lot.

More than savings, though, Froisland relishes the ecclesiastical promise.

"We as members of this creation need to be better at utilizing the resources given by God and sharing those resources," Froisland says. "I hope and pray that Minnesota, along with the planet, is more attentive to those resources."

Behind the church is a walking labyrinth that volunteers constructed to honor two recently deceased congregants. It's small, circular, and perfectly flat, grass grooving through curves of brown bricks.

It's symbolic of a pilgrimage. Mystics walked these paths, losing track of direction and quieting the mind into contemplation.

It serves as a metaphor for Minnesota, which now steps lightly on its own solar pilgrimage.