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Detroit Lakes city will buy excess solar power from West River project

The 24 Kyocera 180 solar panels installed on the roof of this townhome will generate approximately 6,500 kilowatt hours of power per year. (Vicki Gerdes/DL Newspapers)

Earth Day is when people across the world celebrate the planet on which we live, and the efforts of individuals and organizations across the globe to promote the preservation of a healthy, strong environment for future generations.

Nowhere is the mission of Earth Day, "protecting the Earth and its people every day," more clearly carried out than in Detroit Lakes' own West River Townhomes, the 12-unit housing development that opened last fall.

The townhomes are designed to end the cycle of long-term homelessness, by providing support to their tenants as well as providing a home -- in effect, helping them to sustain themselves.

But the housing complex's contributions to making the world a better place to live don't end there. The 12 units of West River Townhomes also use geothermal heating and cooling systems, which employ heat stored in the earth itself to warm up and cool down the temperature in the home.

And on Thursday, Becker County Housing and Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fischer and Jason Edens of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) gave area community officials and building trades students a look at the development's most recent earth-friendly project: solar electricity.

A total of 24 Kyocera 180 solar panels have been installed on the roof of one of the townhomes, facing south. The $45,000 project, Fischer said, was funded through a combination of grants, a $10,000 state energy rebate and state general obligation bonds.

Edens said RREAL's goal in getting involved with projects like this one is "to make solar energy accessible to people of all income levels."

Because the Kyocera 180 panels have a good, dependable power output, and an estimated 30-year lifespan, Fischer said the County EDA thought the project would be "a good investment," with a payback window of 17-21 years.

The 24 solar panels re capable of generating approximately 6,500 kilowatt hours of energy per year. But the inverters that convert the DC power produced by the solar panels into AC power (which is used in most homes) cost between $3,000-$4,000 each.

So in order to make the experimental project more affordable, only one inverter was purchased --meaning just one of the 12 units in the development will be directly powered by the panels.

The surplus energy produced by the solar panels, however, can be sold back to the City of Detroit Lakes' Public Utilities Department.

In fact, the city has signed an interconnect agreement that makes it mandatory for any surplus energy generated by the solar panels to be purchased by the utility, for distribution to its customers.

Through this interconnect agreement, the solar power generated by the panels is tied in directly with the city's power grid -- thereby eliminating the need for the solar panels to be tied to a battery or electrical storage unit of any kind, Edens noted.

"It's very interesting," said Curt Punt, Detroit Lakes Public Utilities superintendent. "This is the first of its kind on our (electrical) system, and we're pretty excited about it.

"We're looking at this as experimental. Over the next year, we'll see how much (energy) it does produce and try to figure out the payback (timeframe)."

Punt believes solar energy is "going to be a big player in the future ... I don't want to fight it. We need to get on board, see what it's all about."

The problem right now, as both he and Edens indicated, is that energy generated from fossil fuels (coal, fuel oil, etc.) is much more affordable than solar.

"That makes it a tough sell to the general public," Punt said.

But at least one of the onlookers at Thursday's demonstration was sold on the merits of exploring alternative energy sources.

"We've been keeping an eye on this project of Guy's (Fischer)," said Frazee Mayor Hank Ludtke. "We might use it as a boiler plate for a future project in Frazee."

Edens also noted to the building trades students present for the tour -- some of whom had actually helped to install the panels -- that "solar is a booming industry."

"Right now, there's a huge shortage of trained folks who can help with solar and wind (energy) installations -- there are huge opportunities there," he added.