Advocates share value of solar energy
Steele County Indivisible partnered with Solar Connection, Inc. in order to present a solar energy seminar and discussion in celebration of Clean Energy Week.
The seminar was held at the Owatonna Public Library and featured solar energy expert Chris Olofson, who spoke on the importance and practicality of solar energy systems.
Seeing as Minnesota is one of the nation’s leaders in renewable resources, the discussion was warmly received by those attending. “Solar jobs are up in 29 states, mainly those with emerging solar markets,” Olofson said. Minnesota is one of the leaders in solar job growth, seeing an increase of over 20 percent.
Olofson works for Solar Connection, Inc., a Rochester based company that provides solar panels to businesses, farmers, residential dwellings, and industrial manufacturers. As he explained at the outset, “most of us in Minnesota or the U.S. take our energy for granted.”
He described the process by which the solar panels deliver energy to their consumers. The panels are made out of silicon-based cells, which transfer direct current electricity to an inverter, which then converts that to alternating current electricity for use in a home, business, or factory.
“If your solar panel system produces more than the house uses, you can actually sell that energy back to the utility,” Olofson explained. Because Minnesota is a state with net metering, utilities have to buy back the energy for around 12 cents per kilowatt hour. However, if a system goes over 40 kilowatts, net metering is moot and utilities can buy back the energy for less cost.
For this reason, the systems Olofson and those at Solar Connection install are often 39 kilowatts or smaller. “An 8.3-kilowatt system usually produces around 100 to 120 percent of an average household’s electricity use,” Olofson said.
With fixed costs and metered costs increasing at a steady rate, Olofson said that the solar industry in Minnesota is booming. “In nine years of operation Solar Connection has built almost 200 systems,” he said.
“Farmers specifically are seeing the highest cost increase,” he explained of the utilities’ consistent rate hikes. According to Olofson, by utilizing a solar panel system and selling back unused energy to the utilities, consumers can effectively “mitigate those increases.”
Olofson explained that renewable energy in Minnesota has gone up from 6 to 21 percent from 2000 to 2015, while coal energy has gone down from 66 to 44 percent in that same time frame.
Although renewable energy does not only constitute green choices such as solar or wind. It also includes garbage burning, hydro-electric power, bio-energy and geothermal energy.
“The state of Minnesota supports renewables with policy at the state level,” Olofson said. “While a state like Wisconsin, for instance, does not, and has to rely more on resources like coal.”
Olofson decried the use of coal as a source for power, while still understanding its common usage in areas like the Midwest. “Whenever there’s fossil fuels in the mix you’re going to have cons,” he said.
Rochester is currently leading the way in terms of renewables in the state. Ardell Brede, who ran as an independent and is Rochester’s current mayor, recently made a proclamation that the city would commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2031 after visiting their sister city in Germany.
Only 23 cities in the U.S. have committed to do this and Rochester is one of them, although Olofson did hazard that Brede’s proclamation was not official, and was unlikely to be fulfilled seeing as his term is almost up.
“In order for this to be done, everything would have to change,” Olofson said. “It’s hard to do because Rochester is part of SMMPA, which means that it shares its energy with other communities in that system as part of a buy-in.”
While Olofson agreed with the mayor’s intent, he explained to the audience that, “its something that would take time, a lot of planning, and community support. It’s an optimistic goal, and I’d be shocked if we get anywhere near it.”
Seeing as there has been a national push for more jobs in energy sectors like coal, Olofson addressed this in his presentation. He expressed that coal can be harmful for the environment, as well as people who work with it or live near a coal plant.
“Building a coal plant today would be so expensive, which is why no one’s doing it.” This is due to clean up costs, operation costs, and employee health costs among other factors. “Losing jobs are not good for anyone but shifting from fossil fuel jobs to renewables is,” he added.
Minnesota recently added and reopened its first solar panel manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron. The plant was built by Heliene, Inc., a Canadian company who are hoping to avoid some of the tariffs slapped on them by manufacturing the products here, in the U.S.
“This is the perfect example of bringing jobs,” Olofson said. “Without state support at the state level, this would never happen.” According to Olofson, there were 1,400 solar jobs added in Minnesota in 2017.
Although many see solar energy as the future, and as a green alternative to various other types of energy resources, it does carry with it some unmentioned problems.
Currently solar panel systems are expensive, and some electricity co-ops will do cost shifting to charge their customers who install solar panels. The construction of solar panel cells, mostly done in Asian countries like China, is also harmful for the environment as toxic materials and chemicals are used in their manufacture.
Still, many see solar energy as a growing renewable resource that can positively impact the economy while having a less drastic impact on the environment.
Olofson’s seminar was presented at the Owatonna Public Library on Sept. 25. Steele County Indivisible, whose mission statement describes them as “a non-partisan, grassroots, progressive organization founded on the principles of democracy and the values of respect, equality, civil rights, and inclusivity,” played host for the discussion.
Those who wish to learn more about Solar Connection and solar energy can visit the company’s website at: http://solarconnectioninc.com/.