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“We’ve long thought of creating our own energy using quite a few acres of buffer land that we own” around the metro area, Willett said. “This is the fifth approach we’ve tried to get solar done. In ’06, ’07, we tried a traditional capital project approach to build it ourselves, but that looked too expensive.”
Over the years, however, some changes made the private sector perk up its interest.
“Solar panels are 75 percent cheaper than when I put them on my own house,” Willett said. Electric rates rose, and could rise much more. And there are solar credits available to the private sector but not to government agencies.
DFL lawmakers in Minnesota also approved a solar mandate for some utilities, requiring large amounts of energy from solar by 2020. And the DFL-dominated Met Council itself has made its own push.
“I give you credit for your sustainability policy,” Willett told council members, “changing the definition of economic feasibility. The private sector looks to a payback of five years or less; it’s a good deal for us to look out longer.”
If he credited a more left-leaning sensibility, however, he also caught flak from DFL interest groups.
Council member Harry Melander, of Mahtomedi, president of the Minnesota State Building & Construction Trades Council, a labor group, pressed him hard on the wages to be paid to workers creating the solar array.
Willett had to shrug.
“It’s not our money,” he said.
Denver-based Oak Leaf Energy Partners will install the 1.25-megawatt facility on 10 acres, getting the land itself for nothing as part of a wider, extensively negotiated deal over many months to supply the plant’s needs.
“They are raising the money themselves,” he added. “I suppose we could have required [“prevailing wage” conditions] but we didn’t. They are working with bankers to raise funds.”
David Peterson • 952-746-3285