University adds solar panel sites around campus

The sites are a step to help the University reach its goals to reduce carbon emissions.

University President Eric Kaler speaks about sustainability at Mondale Hall on the West Bank campus on Wednesday, April 24 during the announcement that the University has installed nine solar gardens around campus.

Tony Saunders

University President Eric Kaler speaks about sustainability at Mondale Hall on the West Bank campus on Wednesday, April 24 during the announcement that the University has installed nine solar gardens around campus.

Natalie Rademacher

A newly constructed structure topped with solar panels that towers over the Mondale Hall parking lot is part of the University of Minnesota’s efforts to increase renewable energy production on campus.

On Wednesday, University administrators, community members and people involved with the initiative gathered at Mondale Hall near the site of the panels to announce the installation of several solar panel gardens around campus.

Increasing the amount of renewable energy produced on campus is a step toward the University’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2020, officials said. The University is working toward a bigger goal of offsetting 100 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The University had reduced about one-fifth of its carbon emissions since the goal was created in 2011, according to a 2017 progress report.

Projects like the solar installations and a renovation overhaul to the main energy plant on campus have likely pushed the University even closer to reaching its goal since the last published update.

“Every little bit helps. Every piece that we add to that renewably-sourced energy helps bring down that carbon footprint,” said University Director of Sustainability Shane Stennes.

The solar project involves the construction of nine solar panel sites on University grounds. Along with the solar panel structure over the Mondale Hall parking lot, seven other solar panel sites were erected on rooftops of campus buildings and in a field on West Bank.

A location for a ninth solar panel site on campus is still being determined. Construction on the sites began last summer.

This project is the first phase of the University’s plan to develop on-site solar energy. Potential future phases may involve building solar panel sites on the University’s system campuses, Stennes said.

While the newly-installed solar panels were a large installation project on campus, they make up a small amount of the renewable energy currently being produced by the University.

The University has renewable energy sites, including wind turbines and solar panels, that are not on campus. About one-fourth of the energy the University purchases comes from renewable energy sources, said University President Eric Kaler in a speech during Wednesday’s announcement.

“This is a significant accomplishment but only the first step towards carbon neutrality and a truly sustainable future,” Kaler said at the event.

One of the reasons the University is building some of the solar panel sites in places like parking lots is to ensure they are visible on campus.

“We want to make sure that it’s a little more visible to people so that they’re more aware of where their power comes from and how it is generated,” Stennes said.

Along with the University, the state of Minnesota has taken strides in recent years to increase renewable energy production.

Renewable energy sources, including solar panels, accounted for about one-fourth of the energy produced in Minnesota in 2017, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Part of the reason solar energy has grown so much in Minnesota is because of advocacy work around it and support from energy companies for the transition to more renewable energy sources, said Doug Shoemaker, a longtime member of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society. 

“There are many exciting things happening with solar energy right now,” Shoemaker said.