Solar energy projects are springing up in parks and nature centers across the metro area and state, funded by the clean water, land and legacy amendment.

About $1 million has been awarded to projects that will light buildings, parking lots and trails, power a drinking water well, heat water for campground showers and even power electric trash compactors.

The money is a fraction of the sales tax funds from the 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment. The money is for wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and cultural projects.

Much of the park and trails fund -- amounting to $35 million to $40 million annually -- goes to acquire and improve recreation areas. Legislators slotted $485,000 in 2009 and $585,000 in 2010 for solar energy grants in parks and trails "of regional or statewide significance."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources awarded the money to 22 projects, each of which had to apply for the grants, meet certain requirements and come up with a minimum 25 percent match for the funds received.

Electricity saved, water heated

The Kroening Interpretive Center at North Mississippi Park in Minneapolis will install 34 solar panels on a south-facing roof to produce about 28 percent of the electricity it uses each year. The project will include a touch-screen kiosk showing how much energy the solar panels are producing in real time and other educational information.

The education, energy savings and environmental benefits make the project a "win-win-win," said Eric Rehm, planning project manager of Minneapolis Parks. "There'll be less money going into paying utilities that can be put into more productive use for programming or park development."

The panels will be installed next spring, he said, and could save the center $1,330 annually in electric costs. The investment in the system will pay for itself in about 10 years, he said, and the grant will pay $46,000 of the $61,670 total cost.

Como Park pool in St. Paul will receive $150,000 to install a solar thermal water heating system for its bathhouse and concessions buildings as part of the park's $7 million swimming pool replacement.

"We're basically able to heat all of the hot water used in showers and sinks with this new system," said Don Gange, project manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation. The new pool complex, to be built next year at the site of the old pool, will open in 2012, he said.

The Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington will build a $350,000 solar electric system, with $144,000 coming from legacy funds. The solar panels will generate about half the electricity needed for the building, said John Barten, director of natural resources management for Three Rivers Park District.

Barten said many people don't realize that Minnesota is fairly sunny, and its solar radiance is comparable to several warm-weather states. "Actually, Minnesota's a pretty good state for solar," he said.

Outside the metro area, Duluth will get about $40,000 to install 10 solar electric trash compactors and 10 recycling trash units along its Lakewalk Trail.

Northland Arboretum near Brainerd will receive about $60,000 to install and connect a solar array to produce electricity for all indoor, outdoor and trail lighting at its main community education building.

Smaller carbon footprint

Andrew Korsberg, the DNR's trail program coordinator, said the grant program has shown there's a variety of interesting solar projects, whether they heat water and pump it into buildings, or produce electricity from photovoltaic solar arrays.

"Most of our requests came from established park buildings that want to reduce their carbon footprint," Korsberg said. Managers want to see if more energy can be produced at parks than needs to be shipped in from power plants, he said.

The DNR has required most of the projects in nature centers or community buildings to include displays to educate the public about solar power, Korsberg said.

One of the projects will install a solar electric system and other equipment at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, about 11 miles north of Willmar. The center is a showplace for renewable energy on a residential or small-business scale, said executive director Dave Pederson. It already uses solar panels and a wind generator to produce electricity, and burns sunflower seed hulls, wood pellets, crop residue and other biomass for heat.

The new solar panels will be the final step for the center to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy operation, said Pederson. The project's title is "Everything Under the Sun."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388