Standing before a row of solar panels glistening in the sun, 1st District DFL Rep. Tim Walz said Wednesday that it's critical America keeps encouraging renewable energy along with traditional energy sources.
To help make his case, Walz visited a solar project in Oronoco built last year by three local power cooperatives. The panels generate enough electricity to power 62 homes.
"There's no mandate that said they had to go to solar," he said. "They went to solar because it made economic sense. And that's what I've always advocated for. We just need to let them play on a level playing field."
In 2013, Tri-County Electric Cooperative, People's Energy Cooperative and Freeborn-Mower Cooperative teamed up to form Minnesota Three LLC with the goal of bringing commercial grade solar power to Southeast Minnesota. They received a $385,000 federal grant from the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to help build the $1.5 million solar project in Oronoco Crossings Business Park. Walz said he pushed hard to get $50 million per year in REAP funding included in the farm bill.
"I made the case during the farm bill that REAP would have benefits that would entice the public sector to invest in some of these programs out in rural America. I'm out here to go back and say, 'Here's an example of how it worked,'" Walz said.
Bruce Krambeer, president and CEO of Tri-County Electric Cooperative, said the three cooperatives had been hearing from members that they wanted to invest in solar. The project has enabled the coops to sell power back to their power supplier, Dairyland Power Cooperative in La Crosse, Wis.
"This project is actually even being used as a model for other electric coops all over the United States," he said.
Elaine Garry, president and CEO of People's Energy Cooperative, said the project has allowed the cooperatives to study the pros and cons of solar power. Among the benefits are it generates electricity during peak daytime hours and it is something coop members want. The challenge is it remains more expensive than other energy sources and it doesn't help pay for the poles and wires that make up the electrical grid.
Walz toured three other solar sites during his Oronoco visit. He emphasized that energy policy doesn't have to be a choice between traditional energy sources like coal or renewable energy such as solar. He said it make sense for the U.S. to continue using both. He noted that he has also been a supporter of building the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The congressman also met with Cliff Kaehler, who helped found Novel Energy Solutions. Kaehler had been working for an investment bank in New York City when he decided to return home to Minnesota in 2012 to found his own solar energy company — Novel Energy Solutions. Kaehler said that when he was in New York he worked with energy companies and saw an opportunity.
"When I was out there, I realized that solar and wind were the next wave of technologies," Kaehler said.
The St. Charles native's business works with farms, schools and others to install solar panels and lighting. He said business has been brisk — so much so that he hasn't had to advertise, instead relying on referrals and word of mouth.
"It has been growing really fast," he said. "We're over 15 employees now."