They weren’t easy votes, but Crystal has joined a growing number of metro-area cities that are installing solar collectors on municipal buildings in hopes of saving money by using renewable energy that also reduces pollution.

The City Council voted 4 to 3 last spring to install about 40 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels on the Community Center roof, which began making electricity in July. After seeing how it worked, the council again voted 4 to 3 last fall to install another 80 kilowatts of panels on City Hall and on another building by May, said Public Works Director Tom Mathisen. The projects will cost about $1 million altogether, with a $66,000 down payment on the latter two.

Champlin has agreed to a similar deal with no upfront costs for $1.2 million worth of solar equipment that is expected to produce 146 kilowatts when installed on four city buildings by April 30, said City Engineer John Cox. He estimated the panels would produce about 1 percent of the electricity used in the buildings.

The two suburbs will join Minneapolis, St. Paul and about 30 other Minnesota communities that have installed solar equipment on city property, according to Xcel Energy, which provides rebates on modest-sized solar panels. The energy produced by the panels helps Xcel meet a state law revised last year to require utilities to buy or generate 1.5 percent of their power from solar sources by 2020.

Twin solar cities

Minneapolis and St. Paul are solar energy leaders, having won nearly $3 million in federal solar grants. Other cities making their own solar energy include Edina, Woodbury, Burnsville and Arden Hills.

Minneapolis has eight solar panel units ranging from 80 watts at bus stops to a 601-kilowatt array installed in 2010 atop the city Convention Center. They generated 1 percent of the city’s energy in 2013, said Gayle Prest, director of the city’s Sustainability Office.

St. Paul has a dozen solar projects, as well as a 1,000-kilowatt solar-powered water heating system installed at the RiverCentre convention center, said Anne Hunt, the city’s sustainability director.

“The reason solar is growing is panel prices have come down dramatically [especially with rebates] and we have had huge changes in state policy in terms of trying to get the true value of solar,” Prest said.

Not so sure

But in some cities, going solar, even with generous subsidies, isn’t as easy as soaking up sunshine. Some officials question whether fossil fuel emissions from power plants are really warming up the atmosphere enough to cause global warming. Some are dubious about long-term projected savings from using solar energy.

Others, like Crystal Mayor Jim Adams, think it is unfair to use state and federal tax dollars or corporate rebates to subsidize a local solar power project. Although the city’s $66,000 down payment is small, Crystal’s total solar cost of about $1 million “is fiscally irresponsible because that money comes from citizens’ state and federal taxes and Xcel funds,” he said.

Adams was one of the three council members who voted against the projects. They were skeptical of vendor Newport Partners’ estimates of low maintenance and projected energy savings resulting in a $365,000 net advantage over 40 years.

City Finance Director Charles Hansen used more conservative inflation and equipment maintenance costs that indicated a longer period to recoup costs. In a memo, he cautioned that over 40 years, “no one can reliably predict if this project will produce a net financial savings …”

Champlin also bought panels from Newport, but finalized the deal before Newport changed its financing policy, which meant the city had no upfront payment, Cox said. The City Council voted 4 to 1 for the contract, with one member opposed to using Xcel rebates because that increases utility customers’ rates, said Mayor ArMand Nelson.

During the first six years, Champlin and Crystal will buy the solar-generated power from Newport, paying 80 percent of what the electricity would cost if supplied by Xcel, city officials said. The cities will then use that savings to buy the system from Newport. Once they’re owners, the solar electricity produced will be free, aside from maintenance costs.

Harvesting sunlight

The solar panels are angled to get maximum sunshine so that even “in a climate like Minnesota you get enough sun rays to make this work,” said Crystal City Manager Anne Norris. Although the panels were partly buried in snow last week, their smooth surface easily sheds snow, she said.

Minnesota averages 4.6 hours of sunlight a day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s renewable energy lab.

“Minnesota is in the middle of the pack compared to other states” in sunlight, said Julia Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Commerce Department, which offers grants for solar equipment made in the state. She said federal studies calculate that Minnesota receives more sunlight than most East Coast states, and the Twin Cities area gets about as much as San Francisco, Houston or Jacksonville, Fla.