Solar smackdown: 3 types of panels on 1 Duluth office building

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Pillsbury has its bake-off. Now a county government building in Duluth has a shine-off of sorts.

The News Tribune reports solar power systems made by three different companies are sharing the roof of the St. Louis County Government Services Center in what will serve as both a power plant and a laboratory.

The utility company Minnesota Power has hired researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth to monitor the electrical output of each system and how they hold up in the climate of the Northland. The Natural Resources Research Institute will also look at how each system is affected by snow, a low sun angle, cloud cover, and humidity, the News Tribune says.

In announcing the three-year project the county says the findings will help Minnesota Power put together a road map for the most efficient way to expand solar energy in the northeastern part of the state.

And solar energy is expanding. USA Today reports installations of new systems are happening in the United States at the rate of one every four minutes. State and federal tax credits are helping to pay for that expansion.

The Duluth project, for example, costs $170,000 but St. Louis County will receive $116,000 in renewable energy rebates, the News Tribune says. In that case, Minnesota Power is a partner in the project. But USA Today says a growing number of utility companies argue solar projects are siphoning money away from support of the traditional power grid.

Minnesota has an example of that phenomenon. Environment & Energy Publishing reports Geronimo Energy of Edina wants to build a 100-megawatt "solar farm" with panels at various locations in southern and central Minnesota.

An administrative law judge has recommended the Public Utilities Commission approve the project, but Xcel Energy argues the PUC should instead fund its project for new natural gas-fired power, Environment & Energy says.

The panels on the roof in Duluth are made by Silicon Energy, which is based in Mountain Iron; TenKsolar of Bloomington; and Trina, which is a Chinese company. Together they'll made up the largest photovoltaic system in northeastern Minnesota, the News Tribune reports.

But to date much of the expansion of solar power in the state has been happening in rural areas. Midwest Energy News spoke with an installer who works in southeastern Minnesota and has seen a ripple effect among farmers. “You get systems out there, people see them and drop by,” Curt Shellum says.

Who knows, maybe some will drop in on the roof of a certain office building in downtown Duluth.

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