After years of background work, a solar garden is finally being installed at the Pine River-Backus School location.

Construction began shortly after a Pine River city ordinance was adopted Sept. 11 defining the city's stance on ground mounted solar structures. The frames went up quickly and panels were delivered the week of Sept. 15. By Sept. 23, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance owner Jason Edens said 30 percent of the panels had been installed.

"I think there is a total 2,244 modules, I believe," Edens said. "About 30 percent of them are up and we are hoping to commission the system within about five weeks or so."

At the latest, the Pine River panels will be active by year-end. Pine River-Backus is not the only educational facility cooperating in this project. Pequot Lakes High School and Central Lakes College will each have their own roof mounted systems when all is said and done.

"(In) Pequot, we're working our tails off to get that one online by year end as well," Edens said. "The project is permitted. It's all roof work and we have a preconstruction meeting Wednesday (Oct. 24)."

Pequot Lakes will receive 984 modules at the end of the project. RREAL is still working on red tape for the whole project, including in Staples where it seeks an ordinance much like the one approved in Pine River in September.

The school solar project began in 2016 under then Superintendent Cathy Bettino and nearly faltered several times throughout the process. Installation marks the beginning of the end.

"I think it's exciting," said PR-B Superintendent Dave Endicott. "We have had a lot of people working hard to make this come to fruition. Cathy Bettino started this process before I came onboard so to see that it is going to become who we are, I think, is exciting from a lot of different aspects. One, obviously is the cost savings that can come from generating that energy. Two is just being mindful of our resources and how we take care of the place where we live by having renewable energy like that."

"It's so exciting and so rewarding," Edens said. "We are so grateful to all our partners who we've had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with. We're so grateful with everyone's continued interest in the project and it's incredibly rewarding. Mostly, thanks to our team who is doing the hard work of building the asset."

The panels were paid for through a tax credit investor and grants, meaning Pine River-Backus School paid nothing for the installation. Once active, the school district will be able to purchase lower cost electricity from the investor, estimated at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour in April of 2017, a projected savings of $9,979 per year to the district. The advantages to the district are not only financial, however, as the panels represent new educational opportunities.

"What I hope we see and I know they are working on is the curriculum piece," Endicott said. "We get an opportunity to help our students understand that solar power, where the career opportunities lie within renewable energies and expand their use of science, math and all kinds of things in our STEAM program."

"We are super excited about the curricular wraparound services," Edens said. "Now that the system construction is underway, we are working hard to create opportunities for students and teachers to build curriculum, STEAM curriculum around the site-based renewable energy systems. We always say today's youth are making tomorrow's energy choices, and that's a big part of it."