The news can get pretty discouraging these days. We all know people who refuse to pay attention to it because it’s bad for their mental health. But if you tune in to what’s happening …
The news can get pretty discouraging these days. We all know people who refuse to pay attention to it because it’s bad for their mental health. But if you tune in to what’s happening right around you, you can find reasons to feel downright hopeful. Recently we had the chance to visit a factory producing solar panels, and to hear about grassroots clean energy projects popping up all over northeastern Minnesota.
The “we” was a group of about two dozen people from Duluth and the Iron Range. We were participating in an event on Jan. 7 called Let There Be Light: Solar Initiatives Close to Home. The event was organized by two ecumenical, interfaith groups in the Northland, Congregations Caring for the Earth and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. The day began with the tour of the Heliene solar factory in Mt. Iron and ended with a lunch and speakers’ panel hosted at Messiah Lutheran Church. (Messiah is the birthplace of the Iron Range Earth Fest, the largest annual sustainability event in northern Minnesota).
The Heliene plant is a brightly lit, ultra-clean building that hums with machinery and people turning out solar panels that are in demand around the country. The creation of a five-layer sandwich of glass, solar cells, electrical components, and framing requires a clean setting; workers wear gloves and headgear to keep contaminants out. About eighty workers supervise precision machines from Europe and China—including a giant robot arm that quickly assembles thin solar wafers on a glass panel roughly three feet by five feet. More automation is coming, which will enable the company to add another dozen workers and weekend shifts. They turn out nearly a thousand solar panels a day, for a total of 120 megawatts in a year. That’s enough to power about 15,000 homes.
Some of those panels will be installed this summer on the roof of the Whole Foods Co-op store in Duluth’s Denfeld neighborhood. Executive Director Sarah Hannigan told our group that the 65-kilowatt array will be the largest in Duluth. The project grows naturally from one of the co-op’s core values, concern for community. The co-op has arranged with the American Indian Community Housing Organization, indigenous-owned solar installer Solar Bear, and solar developer IPS Solar to recruit and train twenty local people to install the panels. Clean energy jobs like solar installation are among the fastest growing employment categories in Minnesota.
Many of us would like to use renewable energy, but we don’t have a house with the best solar potential, or we’re renters, or we can’t afford our own systems. People are coming up with creative ways to sidestep these challenges.
In Grand Rapids, a long process of citizen-led planning will culminate this year in construction of a one-megawatt community solar garden. Bill Schnell of the Itasca Clean Energy Team describes it as a large solar array, centrally located, tied to the electrical grid, and using a subscription model to encourage broad participation. A project like this offers economies of scale, simplicity for subscribers, and in this case, higher financial return because the array will be paired with a battery storage system. The city-owned power company will be able to store the electricity it generates and sell it onto the grid when the price is higher. Over the 25-year life of the project, the system is expected to save the city at least four million dollars.
Another creative approach is SUN (Solar United Neighbors), a group-buy program used by activists on the Iron Range. Families join together to choose a solar installer to install renewable energy equipment in their homes. The group buy makes it more affordable for all.
Another local group, Lake Superior Solar Finance LLC, has created a new way for ordinary people to invest in big solar projects. It’s a bit like a Kickstarter campaign, but instead of making a donation to a project and getting a T-shirt, people can invest in solar energy and get a financial return. The first project is raising money now for a solar garden for the Red Lake Indian community. The minimum investment is $1,000, and the guaranteed rate of return is 2.5 percent, with money back in five to six years.
Our day offered participants hope in more than one form. In addition to inspiring us with the scope and variety of solar energy initiatives in northeastern Minnesota, people from Duluth and the Range together discovered our shared commitments to our common future. And that’s where hope begins.
Stephanie Hemphill, of Duluth, is a retired environment reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and co-editor of the online magazine www.agatemag.com. Bret Pence, of Duluth, is the Greater Minnesota Director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. Kristin Foster, of Cook, is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who served for three decades as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church. She chairs the steering committee of Congregations Caring for the Earth. She is also board chair of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability and co-chair of the EcoFaith Network Leadership Team of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod.