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Grants could help schools harness solar energy

David Shaffer of Minnesota Solar Energy testifies in favor of HF3675, sponsored by Rep. Jean Wagenius, left. It would provide grant funding for public school district solar energy systems. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Public schools throughout Minnesota could be harnessing solar energy to help operate their facilities.

Sponsored by Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls), HF3675 would appropriate $4 million to provide grants to public school districts to purchase and install solar energy systems on or near school buildings. Wagenius said the use of public-private partnerships, which the bill would allow, could help hundreds of schools benefit from the grants.

“This bill is about reducing costs and providing additional learning opportunities for children,” she said.   

It was laid over Thursday by the House Education Finance Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF3129, awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee. Sen. D. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls) is the sponsor.

“There are multiple ways that we can help our schools and one of the ways that we can do that is to reduce their costs,” Wagenius said.

She provided examples of last year’s electricity costs for three Minneapolis schools: Southwest High School, Justice Page Middle School and Hale Elementary School, that ranged from $105,000 to $373,728.

She also referenced Mounds View Public Schools, whose officials estimate the district will save $1 million on its utility bills over the solar panels’ warrantied 25-year lifespan.

David Shaffer, policy director at the Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association, told the committee the bill is a win-win for the state and school districts by providing both utility cost savings, as well as unique learning opportunities for students.

“This is really an educational opportunity, it’s a way for students to learn about what they might want to get into later on, whether it’s science and engineering, solar installation. It’s really a career development opportunity,” he said.

Shaffer said schools can see a significant return on investment because their large, flat roofs are conducive to how solar panels are built. He estimated that the payback period for installation on schools is somewhere between five to 10 years.

It’s a concept that Rep. Dario Anselmo (R-Edina) said he could get behind, and spoke firsthand to the benefits that solar energy can offer.

“I’m a solar user myself and the return has gotten better now … so it’s great seeing initiatives like this,” he said. 

The $4 million in bond proceeds would be given to the Department of Commerce to disperse. Half of the money is to be allocated to public schools in the seven-country metro area, the other half to schools throughout Greater Minnesota. The grants can fund up to 95 percent of the total cost of the project.

However, one concern was shared by Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing) who suggested that the bill’s language specify that grant money can only be used to install panels on or near school building as opposed to other buildings owned by districts, such as administrative headquarters. 

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