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REAL Solar in Backus reaches 4 megawatts milestone

4 megawatts is enough to power nearly 600 homes.

REAL Solar Building
REAL Solar, located between Pine River and Backus, reached a milestone accomplishment in 2021.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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BACKUS — As of early December, REAL Solar of rural Backus had commissioned 4 megawatts of solar panels for 236 different sites.

To put that into perspective, it's the equivalent of powering 572 homes. The average household would require a six to eight kilowatt photo voltaic array to power the home.

"We recently commissioned a 40 kilowatt system over in Grand Rapids and that put us over the four megawatts of solar capacity installed since 2014," REAL Construction Manager and Co-Director Ben Butcher said.

Butcher was later able to estimate the impact of those installations.

"The systems we've installed to date will offset about 3,402 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, which is equivalent to saving 8,549,085 miles driven with the average car or not burning 3,759,816 pounds of coal," Butcher said in an email.

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REAL doesn't just do household solar installs. The company has also performed larger installs for a variety of clients. More energy is required to power commercial facilities or other large installments.

"The big projects total about 35% of our four megawatts installed," Butcher said. "That includes the Solar for Schools project, which both Pine River and Pequot Lakes were recipients, as well as Central Lakes College. That project all together across the five sites was 1.49 megawatts."

REAL has also been involved in the installation of the first solar community garden in Minnesota in Rockford and the first solar garden in North Dakota. Butcher said about 25% of the total included commercial installations. Residential installations make up about 40%.

REAL Solar branched off from the older company, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, in 2014, when the solar design/build program outgrew the original company. REAL Solar still works closely with RREAL, which still provides solar options to lower income families and homes.

The local market is just getting more popular.
Ben Butcher

REAL Solar grew from two dedicated employees originally incorporated in RREAL to a staff of 10 full time employees. In that time a lot has changed in the industry.

"The technology has changed pretty substantially in the last decade," Butcher said. "When I first started, the average solar panel was producing about 250 watts. And now we're at 400 is at the lower end."

Feasibility and affordability of home installations has changed a great deal since then. Butcher said until recently the costs of panels had decreased significantly. In addition the increased "power density" has made it so panels pay for themselves at a faster rate than before.

As a result there are far more local installations instead of driving long distances to a job site.

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"The local market is just getting more popular," Butcher said. "So when I started, we were living out of backpacks and hotels probably 80% of the time. And I think our crew spends about 10% of the time on the road now. The local market has really, really gotten a lot better."

Even before REAL Solar was incorporated, the affordability changed the way business was operating significantly. RREAL was once well known for its solar thermal technologies using panels that didn't create electricity, but instead used the sun to heat air that could then be used to supplement home heating systems.

When solar electric panels became more available to the average user, that market shifted somewhat.

"It was really just kind of following the market," Butcher said. "When we slowed down on the solar thermal technologies, it's still a very viable option. But it sells harder."

Butcher said the solar thermal panels were less aesthetically pleasing, and that seems to have impacted the market as well. Photovoltaic cells providing electricity were also more familiar to people. Butcher said when he started, about half of the installs were solar thermal. Now, 98% of installs are photovoltaic.

"It's an ever-growing industry," Butcher said. "So we're continually growing. We just put another posting on Indeed for another installation tech. Soon we'll be adding yet another electrician. Yeah, it's a booming industry. So we're just trying to do our best to keep up."

Having been part of one of the largest REAL Solar projects, Dave Endicott - former superintendent of Pine River-Backus Schools and current dean of Central Lakes College's Staples campus, Staples career tech, nursing and grants - said he was happy to be involved in bringing solar to the school district.

"I was not a part of CLC's efforts, though it was in the same initiative as the Pine River-Backus efforts when I was there. But I think we can all be proud we've taken REAL's lead to bring solar to our campuses at CLC and Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes," Endicott said.

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"We're showing that there's a concern for our environment and for renewable energies and those kinds of things," he said. "But also, that there's great career opportunities for our students to get exposed to through these efforts. We're fortunate to have a company right in our region that's a leader in bringing solar to our communities and to our residents."

Endicott said he has solar at his home.

"I've been living the solar life quite a bit here in the last number of years," he said.

"We're thankful and grateful to all of our customers and supporters," Butcher said. "We're looking forward to cultivating a bright future."

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Related Topics: BACKUSSMALL BUSINESS
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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