The news can get pretty discouraging these days. We all know people who refuse to pay attention to it because it’s bad for their mental health.
But if you tune in to what’s happening right around you, you can find reasons to feel downright hopeful.
Recently, we had the chance to visit a factory that produces solar panels and to hear about grassroots, clean-energy projects popping up all over Northeastern Minnesota. The Heliene plant in Mountain Iron is a brightly lit, ultra-clean building that hums with machinery and people turning out solar panels that are in demand around the country. The creation of a five-layer sandwich of glass, solar cells, electrical components, and framing requires a clean setting: Workers wear gloves and headgear to keep contaminants out.
About 80 workers supervise precision machines from Europe and China — including a giant robot arm that quickly assembles thin solar wafers on a glass panel roughly three-by-five feet. More automation is coming, which will enable the company to add another dozen workers and weekend shifts. They turn out nearly 1,000 solar panels a day, totaling 120 megawatts in a year. That’s enough to power about 15,000 homes.
Some of its panels will be installed this summer on the roof of the Whole Foods Co-op Denfeld store. Executive Director Sarah Hannigan told our group that the 65-kilowatt array will be the largest in Duluth. The project grows naturally from one of the co-op’s core values: concern for community. That means purchasing locally whenever possible.
In addition, the co-op has arranged with the American Indian Community Housing Organization, indigenous-owned solar installer Solar Bear, and solar developer IPS Solar to recruit and train 20 local people to install the panels. Clean-energy jobs like solar installation are among the fastest-growing employment categories in Minnesota.
Many of us would like to use renewable energy, but we don’t have a house with the best solar potential. Or we’re renters. Or we can’t afford our own systems. People are coming up with creative ways to sidestep these challenges.
In Grand Rapids, a long process of citizen-led planning will culminate this year in the construction of a one-megawatt community solar garden. Bill Schnell of the Itasca Clean Energy Team describes it as a large solar array, centrally located, tied to the electrical grid, and using a subscription model to encourage broad participation. A project like this offers economies of scale, simplicity for subscribers, and higher financial return because the array will be paired with a battery-storage system. The city-owned power company will be able to store the electricity it generates and sell it onto the grid when the price is higher. Over the 25-year life of the project, the system is expected to save the city $4 million or more.
Another creative approach is SUN, or Solar United Neighbors, a group-buy program used by activists on the Iron Range. Families join together to choose a solar installer, reducing the cost of installing renewable-energy equipment at their homes. Group-buying makes it more affordable for all.
Another local group, Lake Superior Solar Finance LLC, has created a new way for ordinary people to invest in big solar projects. It’s a bit like a Kickstarter campaign, matching groups that need money for solar projects with people wanting to make socially responsible investments. In Kickstarter, people make a donation and might get a T-shirt to acknowledge the support. But in this new approach, investors may be motivated by an interest in furthering the development of solar energy while wanting a return on their investment. The first project is raising money now for a solar garden for the Red Lake Indian community; the minimum investment is $1,000, and the guaranteed rate of return is 2.5%, with money back in five to six years.
It’s encouraging to learn about some of the creative and effective ways our neighbors are exploring to live more sustainably.
The news isn’t all bad after all!
Stephanie Hemphill of Duluth is a retired environment reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and co-editor of the online magazine agatemag.com. Bret Pence of Duluth is the greater Minnesota director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light.