CARLTON — It was fitting when talking with Kevin Browne about his new residential solar array earlier this month that the sun would finally come out as he strolled in the yard.
“I love it,” he said, looking up. “It’s money.”
In April, Browne officially became a solar convert when he and his wife, Dawn, had 60 solar panels installed at their lush residence along the Blackhoof River. The couple had 48 panels affixed to the east and west roof of a pole barn, turning it into a solar griddle, and 12 panels added on the south-facing roof of a home they share with a bounding Great Pyrenees dog.
It’s one of the more robust residential systems in the Northland, sources said, designed so the Brownes will create 100 percent of the energy they need while sending what they don’t use back to the power grid. Already, they’ve had power bills arrive showing figures in the red — meaning Minnesota Power owed them money for the electricity produced above and beyond what they used.
“I was tired of getting a Minnesota Power bill every month that was more than $300 a month and I thought, ‘There has got to be a better way.’” Browne said.
The drive on Carlton County roads to the Browne home featured a pair of other residences with deep blue solar arrays. A Bloomberg report last week said nearly half of the world’s electricity will come from renewable energy by 2050 as costs of wind, solar and battery storage continue to fall.
“I had to sign a form that says I’m an energy producer,” Browne said.
Browne agreed to talk with the News Tribune about costs of the system and incentive programs available through Minnesota Power and the federal government. Upon arrival, he produced a paper outlining it all:
Total cost for the system: $78,641
Minnesota Power rebate: $17,805
Federal 30 percent tax credit: $23,592
Total out-of-pocket cost: $37,244
Browne's system is engineered for 21.6 kilowatt-hours. Under clear skies and sun, the system so far has peaked at 17.6.
“Right now, it’s raining out and we’re still producing 5.1 kilowatt-hours with gray skies,” Browne said.
He is able to track his energy production and consumption using eGauge metering applications on his computer and smartphone.
Retired from both Northwest Airlines and the state of Minnesota, Browne now manufactures dog food in a small business out of his home. His wife also operates a pottery kiln in the basement of their home, which is heated primarily with electric baseboards and electric slabs in the basement flooring.
With the new system, Browne can now walk around the house, unplug a freezer when it’s running and see exactly how much energy it’s using. On a recent trip with Naval buddies, he noticed a spike in energy use and called home to joke with Dawn, “‘You’re running the kiln aren’t you?’”
The Brownes used All Energy Solar of St. Paul to engineer, install and monitor their system. Marilea Griggs is a senior project coordinator there, and helped work with the family. Early residential adopters of solar had a lot of cash up front to install their systems, she said, but that's changing as energy costs rise an average of 3% each year. Like the Brownes, who took out a loan at 3.49% interest for their out-of-pocket costs, people are equating the addition of solar arrays to owning rather than renting their energy.
“There are a lot of different motivations,” Griggs said. “For some people, it gets them closer to getting off the grid and becoming more energy independent. For other people, they know it’s going to be greener. Folks like Kevin and Dawn wanted to make an investment in their home.”
The goal is for a customer's installation loan payment to replace what had been a monthly utility payment, Griggs said.
Minnesota Power has offered some form of solar rebate program dating back to 2004, but it’s never been as popular as it is now. Past rebate programs used to have total annual outlays of up to $100,000. But under the current program, dubbed SolarSense, some 74 applicants are tapping into more than $730,000 in rebates in 2019.
“We’ve really increased the budget a lot,” Minnesota Power customer service representative Paul Helstrom said. “With our rebate and the federal tax credit, we’re bringing (solar) down into a range where people can make a reasonable assumption that in the next 10 years their system will pay for itself.”
Solar energy that's returned to the grid helps Minnesota Power on its road to a goal of 45 percent renewable energy sources by 2025.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will consider an extension of the SolarSense program in January. Currently, there are 13 families on a waiting list. The finite dollars are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The average rebate is $10,000, Helstrom said. The program pays out after a system is installed and inspected. With construction season in bloom, Helstrom said the Northland is bustling with installers finishing up current projects.
For Browne, the Solar Investment Tax Credit from the U.S. Department of Energy will go toward covering his annual federal tax liability.
“Basically, I won’t be paying federal taxes for several years,” he said.
At his kitchen table, he showed the different tracking displays on his laptop monitor. One revealed how much energy individual solar panels were producing in real-time. In another graph, red spikes indicated energy consumption and green ones marked excess energy being produced.
“It’s called net-metering,” Browne said. “When it’s green, the meters are running backward and energy is going back to the grid."
Tickled by the result, he pointed, "This green right here is money back to me.”