When Aveda energizes the flashy new solar field at its headquarters campus in Blaine this spring, nearly 3,000 solar panels are expected to generate half the electricity needed to run its on-site manufacturing facility.
“It’s a great opportunity to show our commitment to the environment,” said Dan Schibel, global sustainability manager for the hair, body and skin care company.
In Fridley, crews this week covered the rooftop of Brin Glass Co.’s manufacturing plant with nearly 2,000 solar panels. In the past year the company also has installed solar arrays at its north Minneapolis and St. Cloud locations.
After decades of hype, the solar energy trend is finally taking off in Minnesota and across the metro suburbs, fueled by a combination of state and federal incentives, low interest rates and zoning changes, industry leaders say.
Also accelerating solar growth, they say, are consumer and investor demands on companies to go green.
There are now an estimated 7,500 solar arrays in Minnesota, with 1,000 of those going up in just the last year alone, said David Shaffer, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.
The arrays cover the equivalent of 10,000 acres and generate more than 1,000 megawatts of energy, he said.
“Wind is currently the cheapest form of energy in Minnesota, but by 2025 everyone is projecting solar will be the cheapest form of energy,” Shaffer said.
“Once you become the least costly form of energy, the resource sells itself. It’s gone from that thing only green people do to a thing that makes business sense. That has sped up adoption.”
In 2013, Minnesota mandated that major utilities generate 1.5% of their power from the sun by 2020. That’s approximately the output of one power plant.
The state has already exceeded that goal with more than 2% of its power now coming from solar, Shaffer said.
In the past five years, more than 650 community solar gardens have been built across the state, allowing individuals and companies to invest in solar on a smaller scale. Shaffer calls Minnesota’s community solar garden program the nation’s most successful, and he credits state policies and incentives.
Companies are typically seeing a three- to five-year payback on solar systems, which last more than two decades, said Rob Appelhof, owner and CEO of Blaine-based Cedar Creek Energy, which installed the solar arrays at Aveda and Brin Glass.
“Big companies like Aveda are taking the lead to show people the value of clean, renewable energy,” Appelhof said.
For Aveda, its new 3.7-acre solar field at the busy intersection of Interstate 35W and Lexington Avenue is part of parent company Estée Lauder’s goal to generate all its electricity through renewable sources. The new system will be officially unveiled at a “cord-cutting” ceremony near the summer solstice in June.
Company officials said the solar system not only will eventually save Aveda money, it also bolsters the brand.
“We are hoping the guests and customers of Aveda see the value of it,” Schibel said. “People will really see Aveda as walking the walk and talking the talk.”
In addition to installing the solar panels, the company will make its 58-acre campus pollinator-friendly by planting a variety of flowers, grasses and trees. Aveda already keeps beehives on the 58-acre Blaine campus and plans to add more after the planting is finished.
Blaine city officials tweaked their zoning last year to allow for Aveda’s prominent ground solar array.
“We know [solar arrays] are getting more popular, and we know we would have requests like this soon or later,” said Blaine City Planner Lori Johnson.
While another ground solar project in a Blaine neighborhood failed to get City Council approval a few years back, the Aveda project in a commercial corner of the city was welcome, Johnson said.
“People are more open and willing in certain locations,” she said.
Rick Tisdale, senior project engineer at Cedar Creek Energy, said local approval for solar arrays — especially those mounted on the ground — can sometimes be the trickiest part of the process.
Statutes in some municipalities allow for the installation of antiquated technology, such as the huge satellite dishes popular in the 1980s, but outlaw even one solar panel mounted on a garage rooftop, he said.
“We have to work with cities and counties to become more in tune with the world today,” Tisdale said.
But communities are slowly coming around. They’re even looking at installing solar arrays on unused land near water treatment plants, maintenance buildings and towers. Many solar arrays are placed on flat industrial roofs, making them all but invisible to passersby.
You can’t see the nearly 2,000 solar panels on the roof of Brin Glass Company’s huge manufacturing plant in Fridley, but workers at the employee-owned company have been excitedly spreading the word about them.
Brin Glass President Bill Sullivan said he appreciates the green aspect of it, but he said that in the end he decided to install solar at three of his facilities this past year for “selfish reasons, really, to be honest.”
“There are a lot of state and federal tax credits and depreciation credits that made sense from an economic standpoint,” he said.
He added that he expects to recoup his cost for the system in three to five years.
Nevertheless, Brin’s energy strategy matches the company’s mission. The company manufactures, fabricates and installs glass windows and doors that are made with energy-efficient materials.
“It made sense from a sustainability aspect for our organization to take that next step,” Sullivan said.