- Associated Press - Monday, March 10, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - One organization wants to make solar power feasible for Burleigh County residents.

North Dakota Renewable Energy Society, a three-person-led nonprofit, has launched Solarize Burleigh County, a community-wide bulk purchase campaign for homeowners and businesses to affordably install solar panels.

North Dakota has more sunlight than any other state along the Canadian border and the long summer days have great solar electricity potential, according to the Natural Re-sources Defense Council, a national environmental action group

Most of North Dakota has an average solar energy density of 4 to 5 kilowatts per hour per square meter each day. Energy density is the amount of energy stored in a given system or region.

“We do have a solar resource,” Andrea Pfennig, community service program administrator at the North Dakota Department of Commerce, told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1llTPCG).

However, there are very few solar installations in the state. The Resources Defense Council website said the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports shipments of photovoltaic cells to North Dakota totaling only 31kilowatts and 3,622 square feet of solar thermal collectors in 2008 and 2009.

Pfennig, who administers two state-funded energy programs, said most of the solar projects done in the state are pretty small.

For the current fiscal year, the State Energy Program is helping fund two solar projects. Turtle River State Park is installing a solar light system to power the park entrance sign and street lights in the campground area. Fort Ransom State Park is installing solar-powered exhaust vent fans for outhouses.

The State Energy Program is typically used by state and local government entities and some nonprofits. The program has $300,000 of state and federal funds for the fiscal year, which have been all distributed among 10 projects. Funding is renewed in June, Pfennig said.

Past projects include photovoltaic lighting systems for signs at Cross Ranch State Park and the State Hospital in Jamestown, a photovoltaic water pumping system at Cross Ranch State Park and solar designs for homes constructed by the Bismarck State College carpentry program.

Another popular solar panel use in North Dakota is running livestock wells in remote locations on farms. Verendrye Electric Cooperative has installed hundreds in the six-county area it serves around Minot. For farmers, the solar panels are far more cost-effective than paying to extend power lines.

The Medora Corp. sells its Solar Bee system of solar-powered water mixers used in water treatment processes. Basin Electric Power Cooperative also has shown interest in adding solar power to its energy mix.

Pfennig said perceptions and cost are what have limited the spread of solar power in the state.

“We have a cold climate and people think solar won’t work up here,” she said.

It also has been expensive, especially when compared with coal-fired power. North Dakota Renewable Energy Society Secretary-Treasurer John Wanecke said by buying wholesale in bulk, cost will be less of a factor. He said the systems typically cost $20,000 to $25,000 but Solarize Burleigh County would be $14,000.

Society members also include Scott Skokos, president, and Candy Hirning, vice president.

Wanecke said the society partnered with Northland Financial for financing to help cover the up-front costs of a solar, grid tied, photovoltaic system.

Solarize Burleigh County could tap into the Renewable Generation Program at Bismarck State College for interns to help with system installations, Wanecke said.

Wanecke said the idea for Solarize Burleigh County came from a similar project in Oregon called Solarize Union County, which is in its second year. He said projects like this one have popped up across the country. He is hoping to get 50 to 200 install commitments in Burleigh County by Aug. 1.

The solar panels are good for 25 years. Wanecke said it takes seven to eight years to pay off the investment with the savings people will have on their electric bill, resulting in free electricity for 17 years and an 11 percent return on investment.

State and federal tax incentives and grants also may cut costs.

The Renewable Energy Program is one of those grant programs that works to help fund commercial renewable energy projects in the state.

Wanecke said Solarize Burleigh County may be eligible for funding and is working on the application.

The state has $3.7 million to spend on a 50 percent match of a project’s cost. Pfennig said the program has not funded many solar programs.

The most recent projects funded by the program include biomaterials and ethanol projects.

“I’m pretty passionate about renewable energy,” Wanecke said. “There needs to be oil and coal, and gas and renewable energy needs to be part of the mix.”

Solarize Burleigh County will host free workshops starting in April to cover topics like the size of system to purchase, budgeting and financing.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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