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Fire Department feels a different heat: Red Wing's first solar panels producing electricity

The solar panels on top of the Red Wing Fire Hall require no maintenance now that they have been installed, Deputy Public Works Director Jay McCleary said.

The first project of Red Wing's four-part solar energy plan has been completed.

The solar panels that were installed a month ago atop the fire station are now generating electricity. Jay McCleary, deputy director of Red Wing Public Works, said the project "went pretty smooth."

Officials first seriously discussed using solar energy in 2011. Less than two years later, the city is producing solar energy.

"It is part of the strategic plan and comprehensive plan which have stated a goal that we would like to see the city reduce our need for nonrenewable energy," McCleary said. "And, of course, solar is a way to do that very quickly."

At the same time, the city did not have that much taxpayer money to fund such a project. That was until Xcel Energy and the state of Minnesota gave the city grants to fund the $4 million project.

This is when the most challenging part of the public utility process started for McCleary.

"We were one of the pioneers in this," he said.

As a result, they had no other models to follow when signing contracts and making deals with the contractors.

"That was a good day," he said, when the contracts had been signed. Then, he said, it was all up to the engineers to implement the plan to install solar panels at the four different locations.

The Fire Hall was the first project. The other three locations will be at Public Works, the solid waste campus and the Red Wing Ignite Building, formerly the Community Development Building.

"(They) should all be finished and up and running in various stages to get there by June 30," McCleary said.

City officials chose these locations because all use considerable energy and because they offer easy sites to install the solar panels.

Other buildings that are not so easy to install solar panels on are the buildings in the historical district. The building has to look like it did when it was built, and since solar panels would not make this possible, McCleary said it would be "pretty hard to put solar panels on those particular places."

When the plan to install solar panels on the fire station was being developed, an issue did come up: The fire station was having a new roof installed.

"The process was complicated in the fact that we put a new roof on the building and we didn't want to create a warranty issue," Fire Chief Tom Schneider said.

The roofing contractors worked with the solar panel contractors to make sure the roof would not leak and to make sure the warranty did not become void due to something they did during the installation process.

"The two contractors worked very well together," McCleary said.

Originally, engineers planned to make 137 holes in the new roof to lock the solar panels into place, to which Schneider said, "No, thank you." The engineers were able to reduce this number to 14.

"It's up and running and doing its thing and you don't even know it's there. It's a quiet neighbor. There's no impact whatsoever on our daily operations," Schneider said.

What it will affect is station's electricity bill. The fire department currently runs on 52-kilowatt hours. The solar system is built to produce up to 17-kilowatt hours per day.

"They're not designed to do the whole job, but they're designed to help us," McCleary said.

During some hours of the week, the fire station does not use all the energy the solar panels generate. This energy is sent back to Xcel Energy through a two-way meter. The energy that goes back to Xcel is recorded and the city of Red Wing has a deal with them that they can freely exchange energy, but they will not be charged for the energy that they create and give back.

For instance, if the solar panels create an excess of 2-kilowatt hours one sunny Saturday afternoon, that energy would go back to Xcel. However, if that Monday is dreary, then the fire station can have 1-kilowatt hours of energy for no charge to compensate for what was shared over the weekend.

Because Newport Partners helped to fund the project, Red Wing is receiving 20 percent of the solar energy created. The other 80 percent is credited to Newport Partners for the time being.

Additionally, since the city receives green energy credits and has no use for them, Newport Partners will receive those for the next six years.

Green energy credits are valuable in the manufacturing industry. If a manufacturer pollutes the air, it needs to have so many green energy credits to balance that. As a result, companies like Newport Partners gather these credits to dole out to different companies.

The grants and funding Red Wing was able to gather in 2012 resulted in the project costing nothing for local taxpayers.

McCleary said the city most likely will have to pay 10 percent of the project even with these grants.

"We really got in on the very, very forefront in the financing package," he said.

Since Red Wing was one of the first communities in the area to install a solar system, the project will serve as an example. McCleary said this is the most exciting project he has had a chance to work on since he started working for city 32 years ago.