Saint John’s University Harvests Solar Energy and Reduces Coal Use

In honor of the recent news that Saint John’s University has committed to stop burning coal on its campus at least through 2013. This blog is an excerpt from our upcoming Moving Minnesota Beyond Coal to Clean Energy report:


In 2009, no Minnesota community matched what Saint John’s University had done with solar. Saint John’s has turned 4 acres of land owned by the abbey into a field of solar collectors harvesting the power of the sun.

“We’ve turned the field that used to be used for corn by the abbey into one that houses solar collectors so you could say we went from photosynthesis to photovoltaic,” says Theo Eggermont, a former sustainability fellow at Saint John’s.

Now, Saint John’s has gone a step further in its commitment to a cleaner planet by replacing the coal it burned on campus with cleaner natural gas at least until 2013. A likely response to the work campus sustainability groups have done to move the campus beyond coal.

At its peak, the 400 kilowatt worth of collectors generate 20 percent of the university’s electrical needs during peak hours “when the sun is shining perfectly,” Eggermont states, although on an annual basis, the figure is 4 percent, because of nighttime and cloudy days.

The project has also created jobs: three full time sustainability jobs and two interns.

St. John’s solar collectors were made possible because of two major grants. One is a $2 million grant by Xcel Energy to Westwood Renewables to help establish a major solar operation on a college campus. Westwood owns the collectors, and established another $1 million grant to make the St. John’s solar project possible. “I don’t think many people are aware of it,” Eggermont says of the grants that Xcel offers.

St. John’s solar collectors were up and running December 18, 2009, and have been virtually problem free. The only problems, Eggermont says, have been minor ones, such as when a band of frozen rain was underneath the snow, and took 5 or 6 days to melt. In terms of solar available, “there has been less in January and more in March than we expected.”

Beyond solar, St. John’s is looking at geothermal for the expansion of its library.

And while a different institution, the College of St. Benedict, which operates under the same abbey as John’s, is looking at a LEED Platinum building, a high standard for energy efficiency, for a new campus building.

Eggermont also says that St. John’s is looking into wind energy and at retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient.

One reason why St. John’s is aggressively pursuing alternative energy and energy savings, Eggermont says, is that it’s “part of the Benedictine value system.  One of the values of stewardship.”

In addition, Eggermont believes that those who believe in alternative energy will be dollars ahead. “I believe very strongly that the price of carbon will go up. If we can lock in alternative energy and the price of coal goes up, we will be saving a lot of money.”


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