Seeing the Brighter Side: The Saint Paul Solar and Energy Efficiency Tour


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Taking the solar tour to the roof of the Saint Paul RiverCentre!

On July 26th, 2012, the City of Saint Paul showed how solar energy works in Minnesota with a tour of multiple new solar installations in the downtown area. Joined by members of various local governments in the Metro area and other interested members of the public, Metro CERT learned about three new solar installations at the RiverCentre and Science Museum.

The first stop on the tour brought everyone to the top of the RiverCentre, where neighboring District Energy St. Paul has recently installed the first integrated large-scale solar thermal system. With a $1 million DOE Market Transformation grant and $1.1 million in funding from District Energy St. Paul, the RiverCentre now hosts 144 solar thermal panels, covering over 21,000 square feet. Tour attendees, led by Nina Axelson of District Energy, stepped onto the roof of the RiverCentre to learn about the successes and challenges associated with such a large-scale project. The system was designed by TKDA to address the structural issues associated with wind, ice, and snow loading, and so far the system has outperformed expectations. The energy produced by the system was to be used primarily for space and water heating at the RiverCentre, but substantially more energy has been exported to the District Energy heating loop for local residents and businesses than was originally expected.

Following a brief stop in the RiverCentre mechanical room to learn about the technical aspects of the system, tour members walked across the street to learn about some other projects that the RiverCentre has installed as part of their “80-20 in 3” initiative —a goal to reduce the operational carbon footprint of the facilities by 80% and increase the buildings’ efficiency to 20% better than average over three years. Bill Huepenbecker, Senior Director of Planning and Public Affairs for
The Xcel Energy Center and the RiverCentre, explained the initiative and introduced some of the projects aimed at meeting this goal. He then led the group to the bottom of the RiverCentre parking garage to look up at a large solar array that stretches over almost the entire south wall facing the river. The 82kW solar electric photovoltaic system, installed by Hunt Electric , consists of 348 panels and is expected to generate about 100,000kW annually for the RiverCentre.

RiverCentre Parking Garage solar PV array Cari Williamette, Senior Construction Coordinator for Westwood Professional Solutions —the company that designed the installation—explained to tour members the unique challenges associated with the project design, such as shading, protecting the panels from theft and vandalism, and developing a structure that can support such a massive array on a wall entirely perpendicular to the ground. The project was able to get off the ground with the help of Federal Stimulus grant dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the funds also supported other energy efficiency projects in the RiverCentre parking garage. Two electric vehicle charging stations were installed, and the RiverCentre has also replaced over 1,000 high pressure sodium lights in the parking garage with fluorescent lamps. These projects combined are estimated to save the RiverCentre nearly $60,000 annually in energy costs.

While tour goers did not get an up close look at the new installation on the Science Museum, Westwood Professional Solutions also designed this project, and Cari Williamette was able to provide some insight into this installation as well. This 10kW system consists of 42 panels manufactured by tenKsolar , a company based in Bloomington, Minnesota. The system is part of an educational exhibit which showcases “Made in Minnesota” projects. While used for educational purposes, the system is also fully integrated, and the power it produces is used directly by the Science Museum.

July 26th was a lovely day in Saint Paul, and it was easy to understand why these organizations were convinced that they could realize the benefits of solar power in Saint Paul. However, these projects did not come without their challenges. District Energy, the RiverCentre, and the Science Museum are hoping that the successes and lessons learned from their projects will help guide others through their own energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. In this way, the City of Saint Paul has become a true leader in the demonstration of how solar works in Minnesota!

Click here to download our cheat sheet, with information on each of the projects and the organizations involved.

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    CERTs Partners:

Minnesota Department of Commerce University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and Extension Great Plains Institute Southwest Regional Development Commission