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Solar panels are shown in this file photo at the BOLD Schools football field in Olivia. Tom Cherveny / Tribune file photo

Solar garden planned north of Brainerd, Minn.

BRAINERD, Minn. — Thanks to green-minded cooperative members, Crow Wing Power plans to build a community solar garden along Minnesota Highway 371 north of Brainerd next spring.

Char Kinzer, public relations manager for the power co-op, said Crow Wing Power will join a list of energy cooperatives to offer solar power to its members. Kinzer said the difference is that Crow Wing Power did not receive free systems from its wholesale power suppliers.

Earlier this year, surveys showed a significant number of members were willing to pay the $1,300 fee for a share in the solar system, Kinzer said.

The program needed to be 80 percent funded before construction could begin. After only a little over three months, the program has already been 92 percent funded, meaning the system could be in operation in April.

The solar garden, which will be built near the Crow Wing Power building, comprises 120 columns spanning 86 feet long and 44 feet deep.

Members were not deterred by the fact that the solar panels will not pay for themselves for 20 years, after which the energy being sold back to the company would actually be above and beyond the initial investment, Kinzer said.

Investors made it clear that they invested for sake of the environment, not money, she said.

"Depending on how many shares they buy, they will receive a $4 to $5 credit on their electric bill," Kinzer said. "That's about how much energy is anticipated to be produced. They get the credit because that solar generation will add to our grid. We have to pay people who have more than they need. This, in no way, will take care of all of their needs. Typically it will take care of a little bit and it is for the good of mankind. They know it going in."

William Faber, of Pillager, a wildlife biologist with a doctorate in natural resources, was the second person to buy shares in the project.

"Last spring they started asking if people would like to sign up," Faber said. "I have a solar water heating system already set up and I, unfortunately, would have to take down a few too many trees to go to more solar myself, so I knew a community solar project would be the next best thing to be able to do. I was all in favor of it."

Faber would like to see recognition for himself and other investors. Faber purchased the initial maximum five shares and would like to invest in the project more in the future.

"I think it's the way we have to go," Faber said. "Renewables are infinite, rather than any other power sources, which are finite. I have a Ph.D. in natural resources. I'm not just off the street when it comes to natural resources. I teach natural resources so I'm a strong supporter of natural resources and natural anything. If I advocate to students and others that this is what we should be going towards, I should take the opportunity myself to do it myself."

Investor contracts also included transfer clauses offering investors the option of passing the investment to others, like family members or a church.

The immediate response suggests there will likely be growth in the cooperative's solar project, Kinzer said. Costs and returns from the solar garden are restricted to the investors in the project. Other cooperative members will not see any changes to their costs.

"With those kind of interests there are no doubts others will be interested in moving to phase 2," Kinzer said.