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Environmentalist's view: Solar energy can shine in our pretty cool state

In a very short period of time, we have made remarkable progress developing exciting new technologies that harness the power of wind and solar. But perhaps now more than ever, we must consider any visionary environmental idea in terms of inescapa...

In a very short period of time, we have made remarkable progress developing exciting new technologies that harness the power of wind and solar. But perhaps now more than ever, we must consider any visionary environmental idea in terms of inescapable economic realities. We want to take care of our planet, but we also need to take care of our finances. How can we manage both?

Luckily, the two go hand in hand. It might surprise many to learn that Minnesota has strong potential to tap the energy of the sun. Though our weather is cooler than most other places in the country, our solar power resource is also stronger than that of many Southern states.

Solar energy technology is clean, safe, proven and available everywhere. The price of many solar energy technologies is declining rapidly, and the production of these technologies can help create good paying jobs in our state. We can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and cut our global warming pollution while strengthening our economy

So far, many who support solar power in general might have still thought it out of reach for their own rooftops. But that's changing. Comprehensive public policy strategies can remove many of the common barriers to solar energy development, and our state lawmakers have sensed this.

This legislative session, Environment Minnesota and our allies focused on -- and saw the passage of -- several key solar policy solutions. First, we urged legislators and the governor's office to support Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) legislation, which is a program designed to help homeowners and businesses install solar energy on their rooftops and help to make energy efficiency improvements as well. Instead of large up-front costs, the investments can be repaid over a period of years, through an annual voluntary assessment on the owner's property bill.

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PACE is 100 percent opt-in, which means no property owner pays additional taxes or fees unless they have work done on their property as part of the program. There is no up-front cost to the property owner, and generally, if the property is sold prior to the end of the repayment period, the new owner takes over the remaining special assessment payments as part of the property's annual bill. For example, if the program finances an energy efficiency and solar project that costs $12,000, the incremental property assessment could be about $900 per year, or $75 per month, including interest. The program is designed to let consumers use the energy savings that accumulate gradually to repay the cost of their energy improvements overtime. The consumer ends up with more money and a higher valued property, which is a pretty smart investment.

PACE passed with overwhelming support this legislative session, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the provision into law as part of the larger tax bill. Now, it's up to local cities and counties to take the next step and create PACE programs for local property owners. This program, coupled with continually improving technology and declining costs, will set the stage for solar energy to shine in our cool state.

We've spent too much time debating and finding ways to continue our reliance on last century's fuel technologies. It's time to focus on the future's opportunities to produce clean, homegrown energy right here in Minnesota. The solar industry is expected to more than double by 2011, creating 50,000 jobs across the United States. We can stay stuck in the failed ideas of the past, or we can jump at this opportunity to create a Minnesota that runs on the sun and the wind a reality.

Ken Bradley is program director for Environment Minnesota .

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