Capture the wind, soak up the sun

Moorhead is a Minnesota leader in renewable energy, as attested by receiving the Western Area Power Administration administrator’s award this year. Energy services manager Dennis Eisenbraun and general manager Bill Schwandt are standing in front of MPS’ solar garden north of the city, which sold out subscriptions for its ninth and final array this year. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

While climate change still raises temperatures – and blood pressure – in some quarters, the city of Moorhead and its residents have been quietly doing their part for 20 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while keeping the lights burning.
“We’ve all been talking about global climate change since the days of LBJ,” says energy services manager Dennis Eisenbraun, who has been part of the city’s public utility, Moorhead Public Service, since 1989. Looking into the wind was a natural here on the plains of the Upper Midwest, where a calm day is a curiosity.
“The state of wind energy wasn’t too advanced back then,” he remembers. “Small wind turbines scaled down from large turbines of the time just didn’t work well. Then we discovered new technology that did the job.” His predecessor at MPS, Chris Reed, also noted strong state and federal incentives. But would it fly locally? The answer, it turned out, was a resounding “yes.”
Dubbed “Capture the Wind,” the campaign to enlist MPS customers to support its first wind tower earned Moorhead a place at the forefront of Minnesota cities in cutting reliance on fossil fuels. The first wind turbine, christened Zephyr, went online in 1999. More than 400 MPS customers signed up to pay an extra $5 per month for the clean energy. When a “second wind” project was launched two years later, more customers quickly took MPS up on its offer – a two-turbine total of 900 customers subscribing to Capture the Wind.
Since then, the two turbines – located on the city’s power ranch near Centennial Park on the north side – have generated more than 45 million kilowatt-hours. That’s enough to fully power 4,442 average-sized homes, Dennis notes, for one full year. The Capture the Wind program earned MPS the American Public Power Association’s Energy Innovator Award in 2001.
Wind-power supporters contracted MPS to pay monthly fees until the two turbines were paid off. Originally Reed had projected it would take 15 years. He was wrong: The debt was erased in 11.
What next? How about solar?
“First, we looked at installing panels on houses,” Dennis remembers. That was in 2011. The utility put up three solar panels on the land between its wind turbines so homeowners could see how individual installations might work. “People could take a look and kick the tires, so to speak,” he says. MPS also offered what he believed were strong financial incentives. Then … crickets: “We only had a couple customers interested in solar projects. We were offering a pretty good incentive, about $1,500 per kilowatt hour, but I couldn’t give it away.”
He and his colleagues went back to the drawing board. “It was a good idea, but we found out most residents weren’t able to put arrays on their roofs,” he explains. “Seventy-five percent were not good solar resources because of overhanging trees and roof lines oriented in the wrong direction. To work well, solar needs an unobstructed south-facing roof.”
But individual buy-ins weren’t the only option. After the initial disappointment, the proverbial light bulb switched on – a community solar garden, with participation similar to Capture the Wind. “We could set up large solar arrays on our own site, a perfect solar resource, and give residents a change to both support and benefit from it,” the energy services manager reports.
That was in 2014. A year later, after a huge response from customers, the first two 72-panel arrays quickly sold out. Homeowners purchased their panels for about $450, either in one payment or equal amounts spread over 12 months. In return, all the power generated by their panels (about 400 kilowatt-hours a year) is credited back to their accounts for 20 years. “It only amounts $35 to $40 a year. It may take 12 or 13 years to pay back their purchase,” he concedes. “We’re not promising any payback, but so far the sun has been pretty reliable about coming up every day. This is just a way to simulate the results of putting panels on your own roof, but saving you the trouble by ganging them together in a better location.”
Yet enthusiasm continued hot and heavy. In 2016, MPS added another array; it sold out in three weeks. Four more were built in 2017 – one for customers at large and a full array each for Concordia College, Minnesota State University Moorhead and the Clay County Joint Law Enforcement Center. Two more sold out and were built in 2018. The final array was installed this summer, filling out all the available acreage at the north side site.
A total of 302 customers are participants in the solar garden. The purchase of each of these “gardeners” purchase will generate a total of about 180 kilowatts per year, less than the two wind turbines, each with a 750-kW output, but still enough energy to fully power 58 average-sized homes for a full year. “It’s taught us a lot,” Dennis reports. “For one thing, we’ve learned solar is viable in our climate. Sunlight is sunlight, whether here or in the tropics.” The technology actually operates more efficiently in the cold, with one caveat. Long hours of summer sunshine are set off by short, dark winter days. He adds that neither snow nor hail have provided much problem. “The only maintenance,” he notes, “is cutting the grass.”
Moorhead’s two renewable-energy projects are still a small factor in the total load that powers the city, but much of the purchased energy is also based on other sources than fossil fuels. Half of the city’s power comes from hydroelectric plants – water power – through the Western Area Power Administration, which operates Garrison and other federal dams. The balance is provided by the Missouri River Energy Services, a consortium of 60 public utilities in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa. That adds to the local power load from a variety of sources: 12% wind, 1% solar, 8% nuclear, 22% coal (from the Laramie River Station in Wyoming) and 7% natural gas (from a plant in Iowa).
Overall, 63% of Moorhead power supply is from renewable (non-fossil) energy, and 71% is carbon-free.
The industry has undergone a sea change since the North Dakota State University graduate joined MPS 30 years ago … from increasing sales of electricity, and consequently building more power plants, to concentrating on helping customers spend less by using less energy. MPS offers a number of incentive programs to encourage saving energy, from Bright Energy Solutions to Thrifty Watts, a program to cut air conditioner and water heater costs by cycling the units on and off at intervals during periods of peak usage. A dual-fuel option for those with both electrical and natural gas or fuel oil furnaces allows MPS to switch their homes from one system to the other at peak times. Customers save 50 percent off the regular rate on all of the electricity that their electric heating systems use. MPS also offers low interest loans and rebates to help finance upgrades to their heating system under the Dual Fuel program.
Moorhead’s renewable-energy efforts have not gone unnoticed – far from it. From the first days in 1999 until today, the city has garnered more than its share of awards within the power industry, among them the American Public Power Association’s recent Smart Energy Provider Award.
What next? You may be hearing from MPS after the first of the year to share your thoughts. The utility has hired a professional survey firm to canvas its customers to answer that question. “Do you want more of same? Different sales deals? Bigger or smaller projects?” The only roadblock they can see, Dennis says, is an altogether different utility issue: So many people have lately stopped answering their telephones.

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