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Fond du Lac solar farm ready to make electricity

A group of people attending the ceremony marking the completion of a 5-acre solar power array on the Fond du Lac Reservation look over the site which features 3,230 panels in 10 rows. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Ricky DeFoe of Sawyer points the pipe in each of the four directions while saying a prayer during ceremonies at the site of the completed 5-acre solar power array (background) on the Fond du Lac Reservation during cememonies Wednesday morning. "Today we're here because of the sun," said DeFoe. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Attendees at the ceremony marking the completion of the 5-acre solar array on the Fond du Lac Reservation tour the grounds Wednesday morning. Electricity generated by the panels feeds the grid which powers Black Bear Casino, among other businesses and homes. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

A solar farm that will generate enough electricity to power more than 150 homes, or about 10 percent of the Black Bear Casino's electric needs, was unveiled today by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The $2.2 million solar project is among the largest to come online in the Northland with several more expected in coming months.

Supporters say solar is an emission-free energy choice that will help cut pollutants, including carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that most scientists agree is pushing global climate change.

The 1-megawatt solar farm, built on five acres of a reclaimed gravel pit near the casino, is expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by about 2.6 million pounds per year compared to coal-generated electricity.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 1 megawatt of solar electricity can power about 164 homes.

"The band is working on reducing its carbon footprint and carrying out its environmental stewardship responsibilities," band officials said in a statement announcing completion of the project.

The band says it's already met its Kyoto Protocol carbon reduction goals four years ahead of its 2020 goal, and has added energy-efficient LED lighting to many buildings and smaller solar arrays on the Ojibwe School powwow grounds and the band's Resource Management Division building.

The Fond du Lac effort is the largest solar farm in the Minnesota Power service area, but it will not hold that position for long. Later this fall a 10-megawatt solar farm will open at Camp Ripley in central Minnesota to be hooked up to the Minnesota Power grid.

The Fond du Lac project has its roots in a major federal court settlement agreement between federal regulators and Minnesota Power filed in court in July, 2014. Minnesota Power agreed to pay a $1.4 million civil penalty over alleged pollution-control violations and spend another $4.2 million on conservation and clean-energy projects including the Fond du Lac solar farm. The Duluth-based utility denied any wrongdoing in the case.

In addition to the Fond du Lac and Camp Ripley projects, Minnesota Power is building a smaller, 40-kilowatt project on land near the utility's Herbert Service Center at Arrowhead and Rice Lake roads, and a larger 1-megawatt project is planned in coming months somewhere in the Duluth area. A previous site near the intersection of Haines and Arrowhead roads has now been ruled out for that facility, said Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power spokeswoman.

The utility also has asked solar contractors to submit proposals for a much larger solar project or projects — up to 300 megawatts — to be located in its service area as part of the ongoing effort to increase renewable energy generation and reduce the use of coal.

Rutledge said the utility was excited for the Fond du Lac project to come online.

"They are a valued customer and Minnesota Power and the Fond du Lac Band have a long history of working together on renewable energy resources in our region," she said. "We have worked together on the licensing of our St Louis River hydro facilities. We provided support for the installation of a smaller solar system on the Fond du Lac Resource Management Building. And now Minnesota Power is pleased to have provided technical support and solutions for this larger 1-megawatt solar facility."

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