Albert Lea & Faribault

Southeast Minnesota communities explore solar potential

April 2020

Every community can benefit from solar energy.

It’s a myth that only wealthier and urban communities are leading in solar energy. Recent research from NREL indicates that while urban areas have a greater number of installations, rural communities across the country are generating more per capita solar electricity. These rural communities are slightly below income averages, and are finding savings through solar electric generation.

In 2018, and independently of one another, Albert Lea and Faribault took steps to potentially join rural communities benefiting from solar by using Southeast CERT Seed Grants to do solar energy planning. Both cities partnered with Pale Blue Dot to do solar PV assessments for city operations as well as some county and school sites in each community. Included in the solar energy assessments:

  1. Examination of available building energy benchmarking
  2. Recommendations based on the building energy use
  3. Solar resource site analyses
  4. Financial feasibility with costs and returns

Prior to this report and solar seminar, nothing similar had been available to the public.

Jerry Gabrielatos, Assistant Manager, City of Albert Lea

The report, Solar Ready Albert Lea first considered the city as a whole, including all residents, businesses, and institutions.

  • It was found that the city’s rooftops have the technical potential to generate 42% of the electricity used. Deep analysis was done on 15 total sites (6 for the city, 7 for the Albert Lea Area Schools, and 2 for Freeborn County).
  • B3 Benchmarking data for the past two years at the city sites was considered and led to the recommendation that prior to installing solar at the airport, aquatic center, and the wastewater treatment plant, energy efficiency be explored. This was because those sites performed below 65% of their peers based on the benchmarking data.
  • The city center, ice arena, and city garage are performing well compared to building peers and in addition, the ice arena and garage have the space to potentially generate 100% of their energy.
  • The city’s wastewater treatment plant was found to have a cost-benefit of generating over $7 for every dollar invested in solar.
  • Benchmarking data was not available for the school or county buildings, but three of the school buildings also had the potential to achieve net-zero energy.
  • For each of the sites a solar installation was mocked-up graphically and a 30-year electricity generation and revenue calculation made based on a 3rd party ownership model.

The CERTs Seed Grant allowed us to go beyond simply talking about transitioning to cost-effective clean sources of energy, to actually taking the first tangible steps needed to make that transition.

David Wanberg, Planner, City of Faribault

The report, Faribault: Solar for City and Schools, considered building benchmarking data on 5 city buildings and 8 public school buildings.

  • The report determined that the city’s Washington Center and the school district’s Alternative Learning Center had the potential to achieve net-zero energy.
  • Based on the quality of the solar resource and return on investment, solar installations were prioritized for 18 total buildings (five belonging to the City of Faribault, eight belonging to the Faribault Public Schools, and five belonging to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a local private school).
  • Half of the 18 buildings were estimated to be able to return $2 or more for each $1 invested in solar generation. The High School came in at over a 4 to 1 return, and all other buildings were over 1.25 to 1.
  • Faribault presented their final report to a broad audience that included: city council, 400 9th grade students at the public school, and business and community leaders.

Guiding future developments

Both cities hope that their solar energy planning can help spur jobs, economic development, energy savings, and environmental benefits in their communities. In fact, that's already happening! Faribault participated in the CERTs Solar Possible Program which was a collaborative third-party solar purchasing project partnering with the Minnesota Department of Administration.

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