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Duluth garners $1 million in federal funding to explore solar energy options

The city could use a Department of Energy award to make water flow uphill more economically.

SolarGettyImages-901479006.jpg
Solar panels.
Getty Images
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DULUTH — City officials learned Tuesday they will receive $1 million in federal funding to evaluate the potential for solar energy installations that could make the local power grid more resilient, especially as severe weather events increase in frequency and strength.

Mayor Emily Larson said the support could help hilly Duluth reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to power the pumps that move water around the city.

“You know, pumping water is our largest energy cost. And if there is a way that we can use solar power and decrease what it costs for us to deliver fresh water to people, that would be an incredible investment for us that would yield incredible savings for taxpayers and utility customers. And it will help us meet our carbon-reduction goals,” she said.

The city has partnered with others to offer residents a new tool.

In fact, moving water accounts for 53% of Duluth’s annual municipal electrical expenses, said Mindy Granley, the city’s sustainability officer.

“This is really about finding financially sustainable ways to provide public services. And as costs are increasing, what can we be doing to drive them down?” Larson said.

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“So, is there a way that we could drive down those costs using solar energy? We think there is. But we can’t just charge ahead. We’re going to use this award to learn and plan and study and do site prep,” she said.

Granley said host sites for solar installations could include concrete-capped city water reservoirs, retired landfills and parking structures.

“It costs money to site things and vet things, and one of the benefits of this award is just to be able to give us a leg up to say: We know what sites are viable and what sites aren’t,” she said.

“Where and how you interconnect into Minnesota Power’s grid is important. And I don’t want to fight our local utility. I want to work with them,” Granley said.

Aerial view of a solar farm.
Minnesota Power’s Jean Duluth solar project, seen here Oct. 19.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

The study could guide not only Duluth’s future energy development efforts but also could provide a road map for other cold-weather communities with populations of less than 250,000.

Granley said Duluth plans to extend its work and analyses to two other communities, as well.

“We could save millions of dollars. That’s what’s so exciting to me,” Larson said. “This is something that could set us on a really important trajectory that we honestly have to get on anyway. We just have to.

“This is one of those cross-department, citywide wins that people may or not be aware of, understand and appreciate now. But when we are able to drive down costs while providing reliable service, when we are able to build redundancies into a system that needs it, that’s a good thing,” Larson said.

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Duluth will have two years to complete its work and spend down the RACER award, and Granley said the timing is fortuitous, as federal Inflation Reduction Act funds — including monies to support the development of solar power — begin to flow.

“So, now is a great time to be planning for solar,” she said.

Duluth was one of only 11 cities in the nation selected to receive the award through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Renewables Advancing Community Energy Resilience program, often referred to as RACER.

Duluth's Climate Action Work Plan earns recognition.

“We hope to share what we learn but also, selfishly, we also want to put together a really good plan that we cant bring forward,” Granley said.

The study will look at how Duluth’s power system was affected by recent harsh weather events, including the 2012 flood, the 2016 wind storm and back-to-back gales that battered the city’s coast, inflicting serious damage in both 2017 and 2018. The funding also will be used to evaluate different ways solar power, paired with energy storage, could be incorporated into the city’s infrastructure.

2012 flood
Sightseers visit a section of Vermillion Road in Duluth that was destroyed by floods in June 2012.
File / Duluth News Tribune

The city plans to partner with Ecolibrium3, a Lincoln Park nonprofit working to make the community more equitable and sustainable.

“Our project has a really nice mixture of what we call kind of the top-down planning that the city is going to be doing, assessing lots of potential sites, and then this really unique bottom-up approach, where we’re working directly with residents and better understanding their resiliency needs during different types of outages,” said Jodi Slick, CEO of Ecolibrium3, noting that being without power in January versus July are two completely different experiences for locals.

A Duluth nonprofit and Two Harbors climate activist were two of the five Minnesota Climate Adaptation Awards recognized.

Related Topics: DULUTHENERGY AND MINING
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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