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Easy web program shines light on Duluth's solar potential

A satellite map shows the solar energy potential of rooftops in Duluth. (Duluth Shines screenshot, ecolibrium3.org)1 / 2
A satellite map shows the solar energy potential of rooftops in Duluth. (Duluth Shines screenshot, ecolibrium3.org)2 / 2

Does the sun shine down on you? We're speaking literally here.

If you ever wondered if enough sunshine is hitting your house to make rooftop solar panels make sense, a new web-based program from Ecolibrium3 will shed some light on the answer.

"Duluth Shines" builds off an existing statewide solar potential map and then adds more layers of data that offer residents a better idea of how much solar could be installed on each specific roof in the city.

Go to ecolibrium3.org and click on "Duluth Shines." Type your address in and the program will zoom in on a satellite photo for a closeup of your neighborhood and your home. Every structure 200 square feet or larger shows up digitized for solar, so you can even check out the solar potential of your garage.

Lots of red pixels indicate more solar potential, and the math is figured for you — how much space you have, how much of it is optimal to generate solar electricity and how much it would cost if you hire an installer to put it up.

"It's an entry point to get the conversation going; that's why we tried to make it easy,'' said Bret Pence, director of community programs for Duluth-based Ecolibrium3. "The more information people have, the better informed they are, the more they see solar as something they can really do. We think it's going to make solar more approachable, more affordable, more real to people in Duluth."

Zooming in on a modest house in Duluth's Kenwood neighborhood, for example, the program found about 31 square meters of "optimal'' solar potential. The program said a 3.3 kilowatt system could be fit into that space and that it could produce about half the electricity used in the home each year.

The cost? About $13,600, not including available state, federal or utility incentives that can reduce that by 70 percent.

The rewards? Cutting carbon and cutting electric bills. By reducing the need for coal- or gas-fired electricity, that home's solar system would reduce greenhouse gas carbon emissions by three metric tons annually, or 6,615 pounds each year.

Plug the numbers into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources solar payback program and the computers say that a smallish 3.3 kilowatt system would pay for itself after about 11 years. After that, the system would essentially be paying for half your electric bill each month, for free.

If you're worried about the amount of sunshine in infamously cold Duluth, don't be. Solar panels work as well or better in cold as heat, as long as the sun is shining. Duluth has about the same solar potential as Houston, Texas, or Jacksonville, Fla.

More important is the configuration of your home's roof toward the sun — which direction it faces and what angle the sun hits the space. Trees that might shade the roof also are factored in.

"You can see that some neighborhoods have more potential, some less. The hillside really seems to have an advantage,'' Pence noted, possibly because homes are often facing the sun and because trees below hillside homes usually don't block the sun.

The website offers links to find companies that install solar systems as well as where to find financing, rebates and incentives.

John Ruvelson, a Duluth solar salesman for Minnesota-based Real Solar, said consumers are using the site to engage with the concept of solar electricity. And some are getting excited enough to call him.

But it's also helping weed out the homeowners who are simply curious from the folks who are more serious, reducing his company's soft cost of trying to sell solar.

"It falls in somewhere between a toy, because it's cool and people can play with it and see their own home pop up, and a real tool. But it is real, it works,'' Ruvelson said. "It's great because it gets people into the idea of solar. Some might find their house and say, wow, there are 100 houses in my neighborhood where solar would work. Even if it doesn't work for them, it gets the idea out there."

Ruvelson said the site has proven mostly accurate but may overestimate actual solar capacity in some cases because of quirks like dormers on hip roofs. It also doesn't fully account for an old city fire code that requires a 3-foot setback from the roofline, which can cut into solar capacity considerably on smaller homes, he said.

The more capacity you install, the cheaper it is per watt, Ruvelson noted, because of fixed costs in getting the equipment, installers and electricians out to your house and up on your roof. Residential systems are most economical if they can approach 7kw, or about equal to their home's use, he noted.

A recent small Duluth installation cost the owners about $7 per watt because of the small size and unusual roof, Ruvelson said. But the price has dropped to just over $3 per watt for larger systems, with paybacks now 10 years or less. Ecolibrium3 estimates the average cost at about $4.13 per watt last year, less than half the cost of just a few years ago.

Solar was getting more popular in Duluth even before the new Duluth Shines program. Solar installations in Duluth increased 134 percent from 2014 to 2015, the most recent year data is available for, while prices dropped 18 percent in just one year, Pence said. There was nearly 400kw of photovoltaic solar deployed within the city by the end of 2015 at over 70 different sites.

Ecolibrium3 received a U.S. Department of Energy grant for the Duluth Shines program. The Great Plains Institute, Midwest Renewable Energy Association and the city of Duluth also contributed to the effort and the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Geospatial Analysis Center contributing student experts to develop the ultra-localized system.

State, federal, utility money help cover solar cost

The Minnesota Department of Commerce administers a state solar rebate program called the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program, with applications open through Feb. 28. The program is a lottery, however, and there’s enough money to fund only about one out of three applicants.

The payment for photovoltaic systems — solar electricity — equals about 40 percent of your system after 10 years of payments. A typical residential system is about 4 kilowatts, costing about $18,800. The Made in Minnesota incentive would be about $7,520 paid out over 10 years.

Owners of solar thermal systems (for heat or water systems) who are selected receive a one-time rebate up to 25 percent of the installed cost.

To be eligible, the systems must be manufactured in Minnesota and applicants must be a customer of Minnesota Power, Xcel Energy or Otter Tail Power. Similar incentive programs are available for businesses and nonprofits.

For more information email energy.Info@state.mn.us or call (800) 657-3710 or go to mn.gov/commerce and click on “Consumers,” then “Your Home,” then “Clean Energy Information.”

Minnesota Power’s SolarSense has been providing rebates for several years, with some changes approved just last week by the state Public Utilities Commission. The changes will make the incentives available on a first-come, first-served basis (rather than a lottery) and adds a lot more money to the pot.

There will be $500,000 available in 2017 for Minnesota Power customers who add solar (up from $120,000 last year) with rebates to be based on the actual electrical production of the unit. Go to mnpower.com/Environment/SolarSense to see details and apply.

The federal government also offers a solar investment tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of the system that’s figured on your 1040 tax form. That’s better than a deduction — the tax credit is money directly reducing your tax bill.

Combined consumers can have 70 percent of the total cost of their solar systems paid for, greatly reducing the time it takes for the system to pay for itself.

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