Northern Minnesota has an emerging solar market with high soft costs and few solar installations. The state has higher-than-average electricity rates, yet portions of Minnesota lag behind in the growth of grid-tied solar PV capacity. However, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the state has a potential rooftop capacity of 12,000 MW—enough to produce approximately 21% of the state’s electricity needs—and ground-mounted utility-scale solar PV could provide 150 times the state’s current demand. To date, solar development in Duluth has been hampered by a lack of process clarity in permitting, inspections, and interconnections, as well as high soft costs driven by the custom nature of projects, resulting in a lack of economy of scale.
Despite these challenges, Duluth has several key characteristics and developments that support the advancement of its solar PV market:
These developments—combined with recent solar legislation requiring investor-owned utilities (IOU) to generate 1.5% of their energy from solar, with 10% of that coming from small (<20kW) distributed generation, by 2020—present a promising opportunity for developing a solar market transformation.
The Local Energy Matters project was a strategic, integrated, multi-sector approach to solar market development in Duluth to maximize impact and installations. Ecolibrium3 created the Solar Market Advancement Resource Team by gathering stakeholders from government, business, finance, utilities, and universities. Ecolibrium3, together with the City of Duluth, invited these stakeholders and local residents to a two-day community energy charrette, which included a public session to educate residents on state-based energy incentive deadlines. The charrette resulted in a new partnership with the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Engineering Department to pilot student-led efficiency analysis and solar design for businesses in low-income neighborhoods. Ecolibrium3 also worked with Minnesota Power and community stakeholders to advance conversations on community solar program development.
Ecolibrium3 created a framework for developing demonstration projects in the residential rooftop, community solar, commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors by establishing a baseline analysis of solar in Duluth in the 10 years prior to the start of the project. The team used this historical data to combat local perceptions on cost and availability, assumed to be the primary barriers to solar PV adoption in Duluth. In 2015, Ecolibrium3 released two white papers establishing a baseline solar market analysis for Duluth and reporting on the solar market landscape—including installed solar capacity by sector, installed cost history, financing methods, and barriers in Duluth—in order to identify the best areas of focus to advance the Duluth market.
Ecolibrium3 worked to address contractor availability and quality, and customer acquisition cost, areas identified as opportunities in the solar market analysis. The project team compiled a list of local installers and provided them with training to retrofit existing solar installations that were underperforming. They also assisted customers in understanding state processes and the consumer protections available to them if problems arose.
The Ecolibrium3 team digitized building footprints in the city and built a value-added solar map application for city neighborhoods. They also developed an interactive, public-facing web tool providing detailed information to Duluth’s citizens and informing local home and business owners of potential solar PV opportunities at the individual building level. The tool addresses client acquisition costs and provides guidance to the project team and city policy makers as they consider the solar potential in future planning opportunities.
Through the Lincoln Park Shines! program, Ecolibrium3 linked Duluth businesses with local university students to assess the potential for renewable energy projects at their places of business. Working with these businesses was a crucial step in identifying challenges and opportunities for commercial solar in Duluth. The program provided students with hands-on experience in the field and enabled the businesses to engage on the topic of energy at a high level. Additionally, Ecolibrium3 engaged with staff, faculty, and a group of UMD students to advance solar planning and projects on campus. Students researched and prioritized sites for future solar installations, resulting in a 40 kW installed solar array on campus housing that more than triples solar production at UMD. This push towards solar by the students has helped inspire further UMD investment in solar, including a 100 kW community solar garden subscription and a 50 kW array on top of the new Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building.
Ecolibrium3 also partnered with local institutions to explore the potential of solar+storage in Duluth to build local resilience. During a major storm that knocked down power lines and flooded neighborhoods, the Hartley Nature Center (HNC) was forced to cancel a week of summer camp, resulting in $14,000 in losses. Ecolibrium3 worked with HNC to retrofit their solar array to include battery backup, helping ensure catastrophic weather events will not impact future operations. This initiative, the first solar+storage installation of its kind in northern Minnesota, inspired Duluth residents to consider adding storage to their solar systems and prompted the City of Duluth to research a resilient power solution for its municipal water treatment and main pumping facility. Monitoring and optimization of the Hartley project will continue and will lead to additional storage projects in the area.
The story of Hartley Nature Center and how they reduce electricity costs, provided public education, and improved community energy security by adding storage to an existing PV system.
A report examining the local solar market including installer availability and quality, financing, development process, hardware, code/policy, solar mapping, and cost.
Duluth’s baseline analysis of installed solar capacity by sector, installed cost, financing, and barriers intended to identify best areas of future focus for advancing the local market.
The cross-sector project team created and began implementing a five-year solar market transformation plan for the city, establishing solar development goals for residential rooftop, community, institutional, and utility sectors. The plan includes a solar generation overlay for zoning, community-scale finance programs, and streamlined permitting and inspection processes. During the stakeholder process, the project team will work with the local IOU to find potential solar installations that will help the utility meet or exceed its solar portfolio standard and establish a value of solar tariff case for northeastern Minnesota. The project team engaged in revising Duluth’s Comprehensive Plan and year-long, city-designated land use planning process to incorporate energy generation. In addition, the project worked to review solar practices for the city housing plan, develop a framework for solar installation in a historic neighborhood, and identify appropriate brownfield development sites. The cross-sector five-year solar transformation plan adapts best practices from the region with the goal of reducing total installed costs by 50% from the measured baseline.
The multi-stakeholder approach to solar market development in Duluth maximized impact and installations, and the five-year solar market transformation plan established solar development goals for residential rooftop, community, institutional, and utility sectors. By advising and assisting in residential, commercial, and community sector solar project management, Ecolibrium3 contributed to a shift in local perception, showing that solar is possible in a cold climate city. At the beginning of the project, Duluth had 254.57kW installed solar capacity with an average cost of $5.04/watt installed in 2014. Over the three years of the project, Duluth’s installed residential and commercial solar capacity grew by 344% to 875.9 kW with an additional 702 kW solar garden capacity subscribed by Duluth residents, businesses, and institutions. Installation costs dropped 48% over this timeframe to $4.08/watt installed.
The unique partnership between UMD, Ecolibrium3, and the business and institutional community is an effective model for providing hands-on experience for students and other stakeholders and showing the potential of solar by reducing the information gap. This project advanced Duluth’s solar market, and developed clear opportunities for Duluth stakeholders to continue their work and aid in the larger evolution of the national solar market.