Sustainable energy coming to a park near you

‘What government can do and should do to operate [its] facilities’

Solar array at Parade Ice Garden, a year-round ice rink in the Lowry Hill neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The Park Board is bringing sustainability energy and solar power education your way.

The board’s first, and largest, solar installment with 374 panels on the rooftop of Parade Ice Garden in the Lowry Hill neighborhood was completed in June.

The installation of smaller, informative solar panel systems at parks throughout the city — including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, East Phillips Park and Webber Park — is scheduled to be complete by November.

This solar project is the result of a nearly $1 million grant from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund. The Park Board contributed an additional $150,000 in matching funds.

Park Superintendent Jayne Miller celebrated the solar project with Xcel Energy officials and other park leaders in June, after the Parade Ice installment.

“Sustainability is a core value of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and we’re grateful for partners like Xcel Energy that make these big projects possible,” Miller said. “The exciting improvements at Parade Ice Garden and upcoming solar projects across Minneapolis parks will have a huge economic, environmental and educational impact for years to come.”

Lee Gabler, senior director of customer strategy and solutions at Xcel, works with grant recipients. He said projects like this one will help the company reach its goal of generating 8 percent of its power from solar, as part of a larger effort to be 63 percent carbon-free by 2030.

“We’re committed to solar. It’s part of our existing resource plan,” Gabler said. “Are these projects in Minneapolis at a small scale? Yes. But they’re adding to all of that, they’re one piece of the puzzle that will get us to our [goal].”

The expansive solar array at Park Ice is expected to generate 10 to 15 percent of the building’s annual electrical needs, which is notable considering how much energy the ice-rink requires to run year-round, according to park officials.

“I think we’re trying to be conservative with our estimates,” said Cliff Swenson, director of design and project management for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Planning Department. “We will definitely meet that 10 to 15 percent of energy use goal.”

The smaller installments are meant to set an example and be a resource for homeowners in the community. Displays will provide information about sustainable energy — in this case, solar energy —and its benefits.

“The remote sites, if you look at what they’re going to produce, it’s not a lot of electricity,” Swenson said. “At Parade Ice, we had a full roof [available], and it uses a lot of energy, so it made sense for us to put a large installation there. The other sites are really demonstration sites.”

The solar panels and displays will also “augment educational opportunities for programs for Minneapolis youth,” Swenson said.

Another installment is planned for Lake Nokomis’ main beach, but it will have to wait until the spring because of high water, Swenson said. The new Northeast Athletic Field Recreation Center will also feature solar panels to offset a portion of electrical costs, but that is not part of the project funded by the grant from Xcel Energy.

Craig Wilson is the principal and managing partner at Sustology, a sustainability advisory firm that consults with businesses, governmental agencies and non-profits. The firm wrote the grant proposal and managed the solar project on behalf of the Park Board.

Wilson said it is “absolutely” viable for homeowners to install solar panel systems.

“Most of the time it is feasible for homeowners if you tolerate a little bit of an extended payback,” he said. “The return on investment tends to make them really beneficial in the long run.”

Having few trees, south facing rooflines and large attic spaces that are easy to access make solar systems more realistic, Wilson said. Sometimes a house isn’t well suited for the project.

“It just really depends on the particular context for a given house, and then it depends a lot on the different incentive programs that exist within the area,” he said.

Xcel has an aggressive incentive program called Solar Rewards that pays 8 cents per kilowatt hour that a home system produces, and gives credit back if the system produces more energy than the home uses to ensure homeowners receive the full value of the system’s generation.

State Legislature also established the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program in 2013 to boost the solar industry. In addition to these statewide incentives, there is a federal tax credit and many other programs to help offset the cost of installing a residential solar panel system, Wilson said.

In addition to making this information accessible to neighborhoods across the city, Swenson said the Park Board wants to the demonstration sites to serve as an example for other government agencies.

“We need to be very cognizant of the way we’re stewarding the public funds that we have to operate those buildings. If you look 10 years down the road, while we were able to use solar — or another renewable energy source — to save on 15 percent of our energy usage, it’s a huge dollar amount. It shows Minneapolis and the region that we’re spending money wisely,” Swenson said. “We need to provide leadership to show other communities and other agencies what government can do and should do to operate their facilities.”