PINE RIVER - Traveling the country roads of rural Pine River yields the expected sights-herds of cattle, stands of pine trees, meandering streams-but also glimpses into the future.
In open fields and on rooftops are solar arrays, panels harnessing the energy of the sun's rays and powering the electricity, heating systems and hot water of homes and businesses.
"Often, people think because it's a cold climate, snowy climate, solar doesn't do well here," said Jason Edens, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance in Backus. "We actually have a great solar resource."
The solar resource is so great, Edens said, it's equivalent to that of Houston, Texas-91 percent of the harvestable solar energy in Miami.
Those interested in learning more about solar power piled into a van with Edens Saturday in the parking lot of Pine River-Backus High School. The tour was offered as part of the 10th annual Back to Basics event, a day of sustainable living workshops and vendors hosted by the nonprofit Happy Dancing Turtle.
The tour included five stops in the surrounding Pine River area with opportunities to see a range of systems, including solar thermal systems converting radiation to heat water and air and voltaic systems, which convert sunshine into direct current electricity. How much solar energy a homeowner chooses to utilize varies widely, Edens said, ranging from 5 to 10 percent all the way to more than 100 percent of the 9,000 kilowatt hours the average Minnesota household consumes annually.
The Bungo Township home of Doug Weiss, located 10 miles west of Pine River off 32nd Street Southwest, is one of those generating more than 100 percent of its needed energy. A large array of solar panels sits in a field near Weiss' house, unobstructed from the shadows of trees.
The retired University of Minnesota professor was assisted by RREAL in the construction of his array, and Edens said Weiss wanted enough capacity to eventually power an electric car. For now, however, Weiss is a "net exporter" of electricity, selling the extra power generated by the array back to Crow Wing Power. Edens said the power cooperative is required by law to purchase the power from Weiss and anyone else producing more than they consume.
"Oftentimes, people want the capacity to grow into a larger system," Edens said. "He actually elected to install a large system, because he knew that by hedging against the cost of energy in the future, he would actually make more through the avoided cost and the stabilization of his energy costs in the long term."
Edens, whose own home is completely off the grid with the use of solar and battery power, started RREAL in his basement and garage in 2000. Initially run entirely by volunteers, the mission of the nonprofit organization is to make solar energy accessible to communities of all income levels. Since its inception, the organization assisted in the installation of more than 400 solar energy systems for low-income households and hundreds more market-rate systems.
Edens said those who work at RREAL take the mission seriously and live it themselves.
Another home on the solar tour was that of Joel Lindstrom, master electrician for the organization. The electricity, heat and hot water in Lindstrom's home are all powered by solar energy, arrays adorning the roof and mounted to the south side of the exterior.
Inside Lindstrom's home, the only evidence of the solar electric system is a small solar power inverter that converts the direct current to an alternating current. A meter on the box shows how much power the solar panels are collecting in real time. The sky was overcast Saturday, so the panels were generating only about 80 watts. But this does not mean Lindstrom goes without-the traditional power grid picks up any deficits in solar energy.
The same is true for the solar water heating system, which works in conjunction with an electric water heater. Sometimes, the solar system heats the water enough so the electric system does not need to kick in at all. Other times, the solar system heats the water enough to lighten the workload.
"That's how you harvest the savings," Edens said. "You're pre-heating your existing fossil fuel-based system, and because it doesn't have to work as hard, you're experiencing savings. These systems are always designed to be in partnership with some other backup system."
Edens said in Lindstrom's household of two, the solar water heating system typically generates enough energy so the pair can turn off the electric water heater four to five months of the year.
"It's just important to note that you can integrate these systems into fossil fuel-based systems and never go without," Edens said. "There's also this lingering misconception that by living with solar you have to experience some sort of hardship. I think some people think living with solar means you have to live with candles. Nothing can be further from the truth."
Weiss and Lindstrom are not the only ones buying into the sun's power, Edens said. He foresees solar energy in rural America as poised for explosive growth in the next decade as the economic advantages catch up to the environmental benefits of less reliance on fossil fuels. This is in part driven by tax incentives, he added, but mostly driven by a desire to stabilize energy costs.
Not only is the use of solar energy systems growing, Edens said the industry itself is creating jobs at a much faster rate than other industries in Minnesota and the entire United States.
A 2014 study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development found employment in clean energy industries rose 78 percent between 2000 and the first quarter of 2014, compared to 11 percent growth among the state's total employment in the same timeframe. This growth persisted through the Great Recession.
"A lot of these decisions are really driven by the bean counters, not so much by the environmentalists. It's really a financial decision," Edens said. "It just makes so much more sense to avoid that energy cost volatility and just lock in.
"If the system lasts 30 years, and you buy it today, you know what your per unit cost of energy will be at year five, at year 15, at year 30. Whereas if we just depend on the electric utilities, it will be an upward oscillation. So the ability to lock in and know what your energy costs are going to be 30 years from now, that's hugely valuable. ... For businesses, it's really a slam dunk. We've taken so many projects to banks on behalf of clients, and they're like, 'Why would anyone not do this?'"