solar market development
Dr. Derek Larson, chair of St. John’s University’s environmental studies department, explains to students how the
single-axis tracking system functions. The Array Technologies
Dura TrackHZ tracking system operates with GPS input and is
gear-driven by 1.5-HP 240-Vac three-phase motors.
38 November/December 2010 SOLAR TODA Y solartoday.org
among the university’s students and the neighboring community. Westwood would design and
install the system and provide service, operations
and maintenance. A third party, Best Power
International LLC ( bestpowersolar.net), owns
the system and assumed capital expenses exceeding the $2 million grant. Best Power leases the
land from St. John’s and sells the electricity generated at an undisclosed fixed rate via a power
purchase agreement to Xcel, which also assumes
the renewable energy credits.
“Basically all it cost us was the ability to rent
the land [for agriculture],” said Br. Benedict
Leuthner, the St. John’s Abbey’s treasurer. “At
the same time, people had a hard time wrapping
their minds around what this was: Is it a big noisy
industrial site? Are there flashing lights? The
community was really concerned about what
kind of impact this would have.”
A few years back those concerns might have
prevented the solar farm from materializing.
Abbot John Klassen admits the monastic com-
munity’s mindset has evolved in this regard.
“Over the last five years, I want to say, the com-
munity has come to the realization that the aes-
thetic issues are so completely trumped by the
importance of renewable energy,” Klassen said.
“We’ve realized that this is important for us to
do, and that it’s the right thing for us to do.”
Since Westwood applied for the Xcel grant,
Minnesota’s solar industry has taken off. “Every
year the Minnesota Department of Commerce
publishes a list of all the solar contractors [in the
state],” Monesterio said. “Two years ago, the list
barely filled the bottom half of a page. And now
it’s at five or six pages.” Another Westwood proj-
ect — a 600-k W system on the rooftop of the
Minneapolis Convention Center — was slated
to go online in November, dethroning the St.
John’s installation as Minnesota’s largest.
The solar farm broke ground in September
2009 and went online that December. It pro-
duces the equivalent of up to 20 percent of the
university and abbey’s peak summer electricity
demand, and it is forecasted to produce about
575,000 kilowatt-hours, or the equivalent of 4
percent of overall demand, annually. While it
might be considered a modest array in other
states, the St. John’s installation represented the
first demonstration of a large-scale solar farm
in Minnesota, hitting the grid at four times the
rated capacity of the next-largest system in the
state. It’s proving large-scale PV in a state with
only moderate incentives (a state rebate of $1.75
per watt and no Xcel rebate for systems greater
than 40 k W). It also helped familiarize Minne-
sotans with the quality of their solar resource,
comparable with that in parts of Florida and bet-
ter than New Jersey’s.
Just off the main road coming into campus,
the solar farm piqued the curiosity of the St.
John’s community. After the snowpack melted
in Minnesota this past April, the university orga-
nized a tour to unveil its exciting new energy
source to the public. Sarah Gainey, St. John’s
environmental education coordinator, helped
organize and conduct the event.
“We had over 300 people show up, mostly
community members who were just curious
about what was going on,” Gainey said. She esti-
mates that another 200 community members
have toured the solar farm since the initial open
house. That’s not including groups of students
on field trips, which Gainey leads.
“For K- 12 students, the solar farm tour curriculum is brand new this year,” Gainey said. “For
a group of eighth graders, we have to be creative
and keep it interesting.” She described a game
they play called electron excitement: “We’ll talk
about photons and the sun; the students pretend
they are the electrons and get excited and then
have to run to the circuit to power a kid who’s
pretending to be an iPod.” At another point in
the tour, Gainey said, she connects a portable