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Cloquet Natural Foods goes solar

Workers install some of the new solar panels at Cloquet Natural Foods last Friday. It's the biggest solar project in the northland. [Wendy Johnson/Pine Journal]

Bud McClure, co-proprietor of Cloquet Natural Foods, has long declared that the bustling little store "creates its own energy." Soon, it literally will.

McClure and wife Deb have owned and operated the Carlton Avenue health food store for the past two years. The business is currently in the midst of a major solar energy addition that stands to put it on the map. With 36 solar panels, enough to generate 7.4 kilowatts of energy, McClure said the addition will reportedly make it the largest commercial solar power venture in either Carlton or St. Louis county.

The McClures said the idea of adding solar panels to their building took root about a year ago. They had seen a display by Conservation Technologies of Duluth at an energy fair and decided to seek out the company's guidance and advice.

"It started out to be a small project involving around 2.8 kilowatts," McClure said, "similar to the one at the Whole Foods Coop store in Duluth."

Once the McClures had a site visit to get the project approved for a state energy rebate, however, they discovered they would have to mount the solar panels high enough to achieve maximum efficiency. That was a problem because the roof of the existing building was peaked with an east-west orientation. Also, the surrounding residential neighborhood presented challenges of its own.

"To be approved, you have to have a certain line of sight to the sun during the winter months," explained McClure. "It had to be high enough so we cleared the tops of the trees to the south of us."

The McClures considered several different proposals over the period of many months, including the installation of roof-mounted racks on which to hang the solar panels or possibly the addition of a hip roof off to one side of the building where the McClures had hoped one day to expand the business.

Along the way, they received design and technical input from Deb's brother, Scott Broadfoot, an engineer from Menominee, Wis.

After several plans were proposed and rejected, one day Broadfoot took a cardboard box and spent a couple of hours cutting out a model of the existing building and how it might look if another room was added onto the back of the building with the roof line facing the direction in which the solar panels needed to be oriented.

The plan not only made good fiscal and solar design sense, but the McClures felt it would add much-needed classroom, office and living space to the existing building.

Following the completion of the project's design phase and the acquisition of proper permitting, the McClures ordered the solar panels from a company in Germany. Ironically, solar panels are not currently manufactured anywhere in the United States, with all of them coming from either Germany, Japan or Mexico. In fact, demand was so high, the McClures' panels took six or seven weeks to arrive.

The 40-pound panels, which have a solar capacity of up to 220 watts apiece, are warranted to withstand hail up to 50 miles per hour and contain a grounding system for lightning as well.

During the winter months, the McClures anticipate they will get up to five hours of sun on the fixed panels, and in the summer, six or more.

"We use almost 3,000 kilowatts here a month because of the coolers and freezers," explained McClure. "We're thinking if we can get 30-35 percent of our energy from the solar panels it will be a terrific investment."

The installation of the solar panels began last Wednesday and was expected to finish up this week. Then, an electrician will be brought in to finish wiring the panels leading into the building's electrical system, and the state inspector must examine and sign off on the project.

Finally, McClure said Minnesota Power will change out the current electric meter, putting in a reverse meter so when the structure starts producing more energy than is being used, the excess will be sent back to the power company, who will then buy it back.

The goal is to have the new solar power system up and running by Dec. 31.

McClure said the project would not have been possible had it not been for the generous incentives currently in place for businesses who want to convert to solar power.

"The solar credit for businesses amounts to a 30 percent tax credit with no limit on the project's cost," he said. "I understand that same plan will be expanded to residential home owners as well in the coming year, making it possible for some to live entirely 'off the grid.'"

The McClures admitted that while their solar energy project may still be considered somewhat "cutting edge," there is even greater potential for the future.

"There's some interesting technology on the horizon," said McClure, "with the newest type of solar energy systems involving a plastic film rolled out over the roof instead of using solar panels."

He said the new product is being manufactured in California, but Germany, which is the leading country in the world in terms of solar investment, bought out the entire first two years of production of the product.

As the McClures anticipate the energy savings from their solar power project, they reflect on their reasons for doing it.

"Part of it is because I'm fascinated with the idea of getting electricity from the sun," said McClure. "Also, there were enough incentives to make it worthwhile because it's not a cost-efficient thing to do without state and utility incentives and federal tax credits.

"Finally, we're very concerned about energy, with the Minnesota Power rates slated to go up significantly."

The McClures also agree that converting to solar power is part of the whole philosophy that fits with natural foods.

"It's all about being grounded in living off what the earth provides," said McClure.