RED WING — "We've only got a couple of hundred left," said Jamie Borell.

That's a couple of hundred solar panels, out of more than 20,000, needing to be installed. After that, there are wires to connect and tests to run. The Red Wing Solar Garden being constructed behind Red Wing High School will go online no later than Thanksgiving, he said.

Borell, sales and operations manager for St. Paul-based Innovative Power Systems, a solar installation company, said the 5 megawatt array, when completed this fall, will provide enough power to light 1,200 households. The community solar garden, he said, is easily the largest in Southeast Minnesota.

It is also going to be a financial boon to the Red Wing School District. "I think the school district did a very nice job of thinking ahead and saying, 'We have an opportunity. Let's take advantage while we can,'" said Mark Ryan, a member of the Red Wing School Board.

Of course, now that the community solar garden is about to go online, just about anyone can take advantage of the opportunity, he added.

For the school district, the advantage will come to about $7.7 million spread over 25 years. That's the profit the district will make for getting into the energy production business. The hardest part of the process, Ryan said, was getting all the members of the school board to understand that the project — the renewable energy, the profit for the district, the speed at which it could all be accomplished — were real.

"Wrapping people's heads about it was the most difficult," he said. "This will cost us nothing."

The school district looked at five different solar vendors, and heard presentations from three before selecting IPS, Ryan said. The plan was to buy into a large-scale solar garden in order get green energy and make a profit while doing it. But a stray comment made the plan even better.

"I just happened to ask Jamie, "Do you think you can put it on our land?'" said Kevin Johnson, director of buildings, grounds and technology for the Red Wing school district. That led to the district actually leasing the land for the project to IPS and its partners.

Just another subscriber

The school district does not own the solar array. Like several other entities, it merely subscribes to the community solar garden. The district owns the maximum allowed by law of this particular garden -- 40 percent -- while the city of Red Wing owns another chunk of this solar garden.

Once the lease has run its 25-year course, the district and IPS have several options for the solar garden. If it is still producing power, they could extend the agreement for five or 10 years, Borell said. They could replace the existing solar installation with whatever is state of the art for solar power in 25 years. Or, IPS could pull out all its equipment, recycle or reuse it, and the district would get back its 33 acres of land.

"In 25 years, solar generation will be leaps ahead of where we are now," Ryan said. "It's a very nice site for it. It suits solar access." The land, which is part of a 160-acre tract, is located behind the soccer fields for the high school. There, about 100 rows of panels roll across the hilltop far from any neighbors.

Once completed, the land around the solar panels will be planted with a mixture of native plant seeds known as solar mix. The plants, with deep root systems, do not grow above 3 feet high, well below the height of the racks holding the panels. "It's pollinator friendly," Johnson said. "Last year, it was a corn field."

A great deal

The lease on the land starts at $33,000 and goes up 2 percent per year for the length of the lease, totaling $1,056,999.89. Like the lease, the profit off the electricity deal goes up yearly as well. What starts as a $61,680 net take goes up annually until the district has made $6,643,237.

"For every kilowatt, we get a credit of 12 cents," Johnson said. "And we pay 11 cents."

That means a penny per kilowatt for the district. But when the site produces about 5 megawatts of solar per year, that ends up being a lot of pennies. That not only pays the school district — plus the other subscribers at their own rate of investment — but pays for the project, which is owned by IPS's partner, WGL Energy.

The project cost $12 million to install, Borell said, but WGL Energy receives 30 percent back right away in federal tax credits. "That's the incentive for the developer to do it," he said.

As for the school district, all it cost was a little faith in the system and signing the deal. "There's no capital cost up front for the district," Ryan said. "For institutions like schools, constantly chewing on budget, to get $7.6 million is a tremendous benefit."

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