by Matthew Dybedahl and Stephanie Spitzer
When driving along Hall Avenue above the bluffs of St. Paul, you wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary from these historic homes if you weren’t looking for it. You have to get up close to notice the large blue solar array placed on top of Christopher Childs’s home, an array that produces enough energy to make the home almost 100 percent self-sufficient in electricity.In 2007, Christopher Childs and his wife, Elizabeth Dickinson, decided to invest in solar energy to power their home. After spending years advocating for clean and renewable energy, they thought it was the natural thing to do. They bought the used solar array and other equipment for a total of $18,000. Now they have a 3 kilowatt (kW) grid-tied system. (Today, Xcel Energy and the state of Minnesota have better rebates that make solar power significantly more affordable for home and business owners.) Although the system was installed in April of 2007, it wasn’t fully approved and allowed to operate until that June, when Xcel installed their new smart meter.
The solar photovoltaic (PV) system has proved to be extremely dependable; since 2007, it has only shut down a total of four times during sunny hours. The cause of the malfunction each time was apparently the buildup of humidity in a junction box on the roof, which caused an overcautious ground fault detector interrupter to suspect a fault in the system. Each time the system was operational within thirty minutes and required no outside help — proving solar energy in Minnesota to be very reliable.Over the four year period, the PV system has also prevented some 15 tons of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere and has produced over 15,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. This allows Childs and Dickinson to be almost 100 percent self-sufficient in electricity, though their home’s heat still comes primarily from natural gas, with a small solar assist. Since 2007 they have saved an estimated $1,350 in electricity charges, although that is not the biggest enjoyment Childs receives from the photovoltaic solar system. “I get the most important payback from the enjoyment of knowing that we’re producing our own power, and doing it in a way that’s already prevented over fifteen tons of greenhouse gas emissions. I say that when I wake up on a sunny morning and think about the PV array working away out there, I feel as if I’m driving a solar-powered sports house. And that really is exactly the way it feels,” he says, comparing his photovoltaic system to owning the sports car he drove in the 1970s. As for future solar energy endeavors, Childs and his wife plan to install a more efficient solar array which will allow them to produce almost twice the amount of electricity from the same amount of roof space. They also plan to purchase a Nissan Leaf, which will be powered by the solar energy produced from their home — saving them thousands of dollars in gasoline costs. Childs also hopes more homeowners and local businesses will invest in solar energy.
“At the local level, I look for more and more homeowners and more and more businesses to realize how much solar can do for them. I look for more and more communities to invest in their own community-scale renewable power production facilities — and for this whole state to realize that it can be a model for the nation not just in wind power, but in solar, because we have one of the best solar resources in the country outside of the desert Southwest.”If you would like more information on how to get involved with renewable energy and the movement toward a clean energy economy, please visit the North Star Chapter’s website — or you can also find more information from the Solar Works! Campaign, which is helping educate residents, businesses, and government leaders about the potential of solar energy in Minnesota.