Twin Cities see a bright future

Solar energy is becoming more popular in the Twin Cities.

Chris Born doesn’t have a monthly energy bill. In fact, in March, Xcel Energy paid him $18.

His garage has become a sun haven. On bright days, Born estimates he generates enough power from the 31 solar panels on his garage to feed his entire block’s energy needs.

But Born is one of only about 50 individuals and businesses across the Twin Cities who create active solar energy. So Minneapolis and St. Paul have recently teamed up to promote solar energy for houses, businesses and government buildings and research.

They hope to grow solar projects five-fold over the next two years.

The city of Minneapolis is leading the pack, planning to put 3,000 panels atop the Minneapolis Convention Center or on a maintenance facility, both downtown, by fall.

But solar panels aren’t that affordable or practical for most energy customers. Born said it cost him about $36,400 to install his panels, and estimated it could take up to 20 years to bring in enough cash to repay him.

“I’ve not figured it out because it was not a high priority,” Born said of the payback, adding that it’s more important that individuals become energy independent. Born also captures rain water in barrels around his yard, runs his cars with alternative fuels and heats his house with wood.

“He’s one of my poster children,” said Doug Shoemaker, co-chairman of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society.

But Shoemaker said energy users should concentrate on improving energy efficiency, doing immediate things to conserve, like changing light bulbs or using less energy. These can have an impact and prepare homeowners for long-term projects, like solar panels.

“(This grant) is going to send the message out there – solar is definitely something to consider in our part of the country,” Shoemaker said.

It also aspires to get city ordinances in line, and bring together power companies, organizations, loan providers, constructors and inventors.

“We know there’s a lot of solar here,” Gayle Prest, Minneapolis sustainability manager, said. “We just don’t have a sophisticated infrastructure yet.”

There’s excitement for alternative energies, Tom Fischer, dean of the University’s architecture school, said. We’re entering an era in which people can be “generating power for their house and car off their own roof,” he added.

As natural gas prices increase and research causes the price of solar technologies to decrease, Fisher said solar will become more cost-efficient than traditional energy sources.

On the roof of Rapson Hall where he works, he harnesses the sun with 72 panels to create hydrogen for University research.

The University is currently working on myriad solar initiatives, including making panels cheaper and manufacturing new kinds of roofing shingles with integrated solar power. Students in the architecture and engineering schools have also become involved in the nationwide Solar Decathlon, a competition to make the most efficient, and attractive, solar-powered house.

One thing is certain: With all of these projects, “If we don’t figure out how to do solar,” Shoemaker said, “something’s wrong with all of us.”