Renewable energy gets push locally for 2014

Published 11:11 am Friday, December 27, 2013

Renewable energy advocates are eager for more than just a New Year’s celebration next week.

On Jan. 1, provisions of Minnesota’s Solar Incentive Program take effect: provisions included in 2013 legislation that aim to entice more homeowners and business people to install solar panels while requiring investor-owned utilities to get 1.5 percent of their energy sales from solar electricity by 2020.

Steve Vietor is one of those excited advocates. Vietor, construction electrician instructor at Riverland Community College in Austin and Albert Lea, spoke to locals earlier this year about the benefits, urged Sen. Dan Sparks and Rep. Jeanne Poppe (both DFL-Austin) to support many provisions of the new laws and testified to legislators at the capitol.

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A 10-year, $15 million Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program aims to get homeowners and businesses installing solar, along with manufacturers in Minnesota making and installing the components.

Each year on Jan. 1, from 2014 to 2023, the Department of Commerce will allot $250,000 for solar installation rebates under the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program provision, among other allocations.

According to the Department of Commerce, two sources fund the program: 5 percent of each public utility’s annual Conservation Improvement Program budget and the Xcel Renewable Development Fund.

What does that mean for the prospective buyer of solar equipment? According to the Department of Commerce website: “The maximum rebate for a single family residential dwelling installation is the lesser of 25 percent of the installed cost of a complete system or $2,500. The maximum rebate for a multiple family residential dwelling installation is the lesser of 25 percent of the installed cost of a complete system or $5,000.

The maximum rebate for a commercial installation is the lesser of 25 percent of the installation cost of the complete system or $25,000.”

Of course, there’s some paperwork involved, and people may want to move soon.

“But here’s the deal: The incentives are going to be handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Vietor said.

Applications and more information are available at

As an instructor, Vietor is particularly excited. Years ago, he looked at the benefits and technical aspects of southeastern Minnesota’s growing wind farms and helped bring the educational aspects into the college. The same thing is happening with solar energy.

“We are the only school in the state that has a solar installer program,” he said.

Riverland offers a 22-credit, one-semester solar installer certificate program, which is available starting this January in Albert Lea.

Vietor is convinced solar energy has a significant future in Minnesota, for both homeowners and workers, as incentives for manufacturers to make solar equipment are also a big part of the legislation.

“In the next three years, this solar industry is going to turn into a $2 billion industry in Minnesota,” he said.

Vietor is also excited about solar gardens, for those who don’t have the means to install solar.

“The reality is for anyone that’s really intersted in renewable energy and has the ability or resources to put it in the backyard or home or business, there are going to be after the first of the year more incentives for them,” Vietor said. “Anybody that doesn’t have room on the roof, the backyard, they’re going to be able to invest in one of these third-party solar garden initiatives.”

That means people who live in apartments or can’t afford to install solar can buy into community-owned solar gardens. Vietor said a solar garden in Austin would likely be placed in the industrial sector of town.

Then there are the technical aspects and benefits. Vietor talks about putting energy back onto the grid and getting return money for doing so. After rebates, experts say those who install solar should see a complete return on their investment within several years.

Vietor also talks about the smart grid, in which solar hookups can tell dishwashers, heaters and more to automatically run when solar panels are producing energy. Soon, there may even be solar powered charging stations for electric cars in the area.

Though solar technology has been around for a long time, it has vastly improved. And because of this year’s legislation, Vietor says the industry is going to take off. To some, Minnesota may not seem like the ideal state for solar energy production, but Vietor says just the opposite. During summer peak energy alerts from utility companies, solar modules are at peak production, which eases the strain on the grid. Furthermore, Vietor says modules are even more efficient in the winter when they are cold.

Vietor, who joined the solar revolution in 2007 when he put up modules, could say more — a lot more.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.