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Cooperatives invest together to share solar energy information

John M. Steiner / The Sun A group stands Monday under a series of solar panels in Carrington to learn more about the sun’s energy used to produce electricity.1 / 2
John M. Steiner / The Sun Several rows of solar panels are set up in Carrington as part of a research project conducted by Northern Plains and Dakota Valley Electric Cooperatives.2 / 2

CARRINGTON -- On a grassy yard behind the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative office building sits an array of 16 solar panels, part of a $14,000 project that Northern Plains and Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative are doing together to document the costs of operating a small solar energy system.

Each cooperative's board of directors had agreed in 2014 to move forward with purchasing and building a small solar energy collection system to see if a system of this size, capable of producing up to 6.56 kilowatts an hour, would be cost effective in providing electricity for a residence, small farm or business.

Tracy Boe, Northern Plains Electric Cooperative Board of Directors chairman, said the two cooperatives were already behind the project when the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program provided a $5,000 grant to help defray the project. The North Dakota Department of Commerce also provided a $5,000 grant, leaving Northern Plains and Dakota Valley to come up with the remaining amount.

"The end result, I hope, is we could find a way to make this (solar energy) successful," Boe said.

Richard Schlosser, president of Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative Board of Directors, said Dakota Valley has received many questions over the years from its members about solar energy and its applications.

"They want to use this (solar energy) on their farms, in their residences," he said. "We think this is a worthwhile project."

Darrin Sand, co-manager of Dakota Valley Electric and Northern Plains Cooperatives, said the 16-solar panel array was built to this size because the cooperatives wanted to collect information on cost to build, operate and maintain a system that would be found on a small farm, residence or small business.

Sand said the cooperatives want to answer some common questions—How much electricity will a system of this size produce in North Dakota -- about solar energy systems.

"That is one of the things we'll find out," he said. "What will it cost to maintain the system? Will I have to climb up on my roof and clear snow off the solar panels in winter? We hope to answer questions like this."

Sand said the array has been up and running for a little more than a month and the data collected from it is available for public viewing at either cooperative's website.

Sand said this project is meant to provide information to members of the cooperatives, not to sell solar energy systems.

"If someone asks, we have the name of the company from which we bought our system," he said.

Seth Syverson, manager of engineering for both cooperatives, said the most electricity the system has produced during peak energy producing periods, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on sunny days, is 5.9 kilowatts. He said he thinks North Dakota is a prime area for solar generation and thinks solar energy could be a good option for people wanting to augment their electrical systems at their homes or businesses.

He said the biggest challenge to trying to run any structure only on solar energy is having a battery system to store the electricity.

"Solar systems are basically use-it or lose-it systems," Syverson said. "Where most of the energy loss comes from a solar energy system is finding a way to store it."

For more information on the solar energy system project, visit www.nplains.com or www.dakotavalley.com.

Chris Olson

Hometown: Traverse City, MI College: Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University

(701) 952-8454
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