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Duluth nature center project demonstrates the future of solar

March 27, 2018

At Duluth’s Hartley Nature Center, the future of solar power is part of children’s everyday learning. Every time they turn on the lights or wash their hands, students experience the potential of solar energy.

“The future belongs to our kids, and it’s nice to embed this technology in their environment,” said Okey Ukaga, Executive Director of the University of Minnesota (UMN) Extension Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northeast RSDP).

Showing what’s possible

Northeast RSDP provided seed funding and early concept development for a project to retrofit an older solar array and replace its existing battery. UMN Duluth professor Alison Hoxie, who also serves on the Northeast RSDP board, led a team of students in researching a new battery system that could work with the existing array and offer the most storage potential.

Children dressed in winter clothes running on a snow covered path with trees and grass in the background.
Hartley Nature Center serves as a park, environmental center and outdoor-based preschool.

“The addition of the battery allows the Nature Center to still utilize the electricity generated by their solar panels even if the grid goes down,” Hoxie said. “In the event of a natural disaster, the Center can become a resource for the community. In addition, the battery cuts their energy costs by bringing down their peak demand charges.”

This forward-looking approach can serve as a model to others. “As long as it was going to change, they used it as an opportunity to advance the technology, be more sustainable, and do outreach around it as a demonstration project,” Ukaga said. “Now we can bring others in and show them what’s possible.”

The Northeast Clean Energy Resource Team (Northeast CERT) collaborated on the project and hosted outreach events to help others learn about the technology. According to Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Director Lissa Pawlisch, a battery retrofit like this is unique. “While solar and storage are frequently discussed, there are few examples up and running in Minnesota that one can actually visit and learn from. Not only that, there are even fewer such systems that are done as retrofits to older solar arrays. Hartley’s project is an excellent example of both!”

Broad partnership

A man standing next to a 5 foot tall battery for a solar array system.
New battery selected for Hartley Nature Center solar array.

Early support of the Northeast RSDP and Northeast CERT helped attract additional partners and leverage funding for the project. Partners included Hartley Nature Center, Ecolibrium3, UMN Duluth, Great Northern Solar, Minnesota Power and the City of Duluth. Following seed money provided by Northeast RSDP, additional funding support was provided by U.S. Department of Energy Solar Market Pathways, Minnesota Power Foundationand Clean Energy Group, in addition to substantial in-kind contributions from the City of Duluth and others.

The result of this collaboration is a solar retrofit that not only meets Hartley’s storage needs, but serves as a demonstration project to others. “My hope is that when other facilities want to change their batteries and increase their storage, they will think about more sustainable options like we have here,” Ukaga said. “They can use the same thinking that if there’s something better out there, we can do better, and ask themselves, ‘What is possible?’”

For more information on this project, contact Northeast RSDP Executive Director Okey Ukaga at ukaga001@umn.edu or 218-341-6029.

Learn more about the project from the Clean Energy Resource Teams’ (CERTs) MN Energy Stories.

Read a case study on Hartley Nature Center’s solar battery storage written by Clean Energy Group’s Sarah Galbraith.

Caryn Mohr, March 2018

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

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