Ecolibrium3’s solar garden benefits veterans and families in need

Lincoln Park project will also serve as art gallery & community space

Next year visitors traveling to downtown Duluth will be able to see a solar array producing energy benefitting veterans and low-income families alongside an outdoor art gallery highlighting the Lincoln Park community.

Developed by the nonprofit Ecolibrium3, the 40 kilowatt array will sit adjacent to I-35 at the entrance to Lincoln Park will be completed and generating power by December 31 of this year, with site amenities to be added in 2020-2021.

The solar project is not just about producing power. Ecolibrium3 plans to have the Lincoln Park Solar Garden serve as an entrance to the neighborhood, as a gathering spot for community members, and as an outdoor art gallery.

The Lincoln Park Solar Garden is being paid for in part by Minnesota Power’s Low Income Solar Pilot Program, foundations, individual donors, and small businesses. A successful fundraising event reached its goal, helping secure an additional $25,000 challenge grant.

Ecolibrium3 will own the $200,000 array, located not far from its office in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Minnesota Power will buy all the electricity the project produces and those proceeds will go to benefit two organizations.

Supporting Veterans and Families in Need

  1. A quarter of the money goes to the Duluth Veterans Place, a transitional housing project created by the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.
  2. The rest of the revenue will be assigned to a fund Ecolibrium3 is developing to offer financial assistance to families facing utility disconnections.

Duluth Veterans Place

Duluth Veterans Place looked at solar, but found its roof would not support panels. This gives them the opportunity to benefit directly from renewable energy in cooperation with the Lincoln Park Solar Garden.

Jodi Slick, Executive Director, Ecolibrium3

Although she’s happy to help Duluth residents struggling with energy poverty “it’s a small fraction of what we really need to benefit our community,” Slick said.

The Lincoln Park project was initially conceived as a community solar project in which Ecolibrium3 would select low income families to participate. But that model could only benefit a dozen families and “it’s tough to pick winners and losers in that scenario,” Slick said.

Helping families avoid utility disconnection with mini grants held greater appeal because of the opportunity to assist more people over the expected 25-year lifespan of the array, Slick said.

Ecolibrium3 plans to work with families who receive the grants on developing long-term weatherization plans that could reduce their bills, whether they live in homes or apartments.

“We hope that over time there will be more and more of these types of arrays to help neighborhoods,” she said. “We’d love to get to a point where there is greater energy equity. But in this case, we really wanted to prioritize the program to those who needed it the most and spread the benefits across multiple families and over time.”

A New Approach to Funding & Solar Development

The project is partially funded by Minnesota Power’s Low Income Solar Pilot Program, the first of its kind in the state. The utility’s program provides funding for projects that make it possible for income-qualified customers to have easier access to solar power. Applications for projects that benefit income-qualified customers or facilities that serve income-qualified customers can be submitted by Minnesota Power customers, solar installers or developers, or community groups.

Minnesota Power strongly supports Ecolibrium3’s innovative approach. It represents an opportunity to explore a variety of program structures and models to determine which would best support a long-term solar market for low income customers in our region. This project hits on many of the driving objectives of the program, most importantly with its focus on impact for those in need.

Tina Koecher, Manager of Customer Experience Operations, Minnesota Power

The solar garden was just the first phase of the project. The second phase involved a community design event attended by architects, artists, engineers, and business people who collaborated on how the site could be used by community residents and by visitors.

Armed with the results of the meeting, Ecolibrium3 decided to mount the panels on ten-foot-high poles to allow people to walk through the site. Most solar gardens use low ground-mounts for the panels and install a chain link fence around the array.

“There’s nothing wrong with doing that on many sites, but we saw the location as a place to do a visual rebranding of our neighborhood and community,” Slick said.

As part of the second phase, canvases by six community artists will be installed at the back of the solar arrays, she said. People driving into Duluth will be able to easily spot the panels, but they will have to detour to see the art and the neighborhood’s other attractions, among them a craft district of food and product merchants.

Enticing visitors to Lincoln Park soon becomes more challenging as the Department of Transportation prepares to start the largest highway infrastructure project in the state. The Twin Ports Interchange, as it is called, will replace and rebuild connections to three highways—I35, I-535, and Highway 53—right in the middle of Lincoln Park.

Concept Drawing

What's next?

The solar garden’s third phase, still being conceived, will include gardening and development of a community gathering space. Local students are working with architects on design thinking, which may come into play along with other ideas.

“We want to recognize that the land we’re on is Anishinaabe land and we want to honor that and help build that story into our community,” Slick said. “This is a pretty cool site that allows us to make community together.”

Read more at Midwest Energy news

Read more at Duluth News Tribune

  • Technology: Solar Electric
  • Northeast CERT Seed Grant: $2,500
  • Total Project Cost: $148,930
  • Other Funds: Minnesota Power low-income solar funds, solar production credit from utility, City’s in-kind land lease
  • Project Team: Mark Harris (Energy Insights) and Zach Shears (Ecolibrium3)
  • People Reached: 150
  • Annual Energy Generated: 52,560 kWh

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