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Minnesota Power dedicates 60-acre solar farm at Camp Ripley

This aerial view taken Thursday afternoon from a helicopter shows the 10-megawatt solar farm that covers more than 60 acres of the Camp Ripley National Guard Base, part of which can be seen in the background. The solar array is one of the largest in Minnesota and the largest at a National Guard installation in the United States. The electricity generated can power the entire base. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 5
Alan Hodnik, CEO of ALLETE Inc., speaks about how Minnesota Power coordinated efforts with Fort Ripley National Guard Base to create one of the largest solar farms in Minnesota and the largest on any National Guard installation in the United States during ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Fort Ripley National Guard Base Thursday morning. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 5
Against the backdrop of the massive solar farm at Camp Ripley, Lt. Governer Tina Smith speaks about the project, the largest solar array in Minnesota, Thursday morning. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 5
Students and teachers from Little Falls Community Middle School listen and take photos as Matt Freudenrich (right), construction manager for the solar array project for Minnesota Power, explains how the panels work Thursday afternoon at Fort Ripley National Guard Base. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 5
A bright sun reflects off the surface of one of the solar arrays on the 10-megawatt solar farm that covers more than 60 acres of the sprawling Camp Ripley National Guard Base. Bob King / Forum News Service5 / 5

CAMP RIPLEY — There was more wind than sun at this National Guard base near Brainerd on Thursday morning, but the state's newest solar farm still managed to turn out more than 6 megawatts of power during its official dedication.

"We do mean to be responsive to a changing environment, and we are," said Allete CEO Al Hodnik in front of the 60-acre array of solar panels his company, Minnesota Power, built and now operates. "We take the backseat to no one in innovation."

The $25 million project is a partnership between Minnesota Power and the Minnesota National Guard, which provided the land and can now boast the largest solar array on any National Guard base in the country.

"This was an ideal site," Hodnik said. "You can see how much acreage you need for 10 megawatts (the capacity of the array)."

The power generated is sent to the grid for Minnesota Power's customers in the middle of the state; at full capacity it can power more than 1,700 homes. (Based in Duluth, Minnesota Power serves customers from Little Falls to Silver Bay and up to International Falls.)

Camp Ripley can draw from the solar farm in times of emergency, and it goes a long way to make the base a "net-zero" electricity user.

"Camp Ripley is now capable of producing as much energy as it consumes," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard. "We can make a better Minnesota and a better world by joining the worldwide initiative to address the serious challenge of climate change."

The sun started to poke through the clouds as the adjutant general spoke before a sizable crowd on Thursday. Local schoolchildren, area politicians and other residents were among the guardsmen and women, and utility employees taking part in Thursday's dedication and ribbon cutting.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith praised Minnesota Power for its growing portfolio of renewable projects, including wind farms in North Dakota.

"With four megastorms in the past seven years in Minnesota, we don't need any more reminders of the impact of a changing climate on our state," Smith said. "Projects like you see behind us will be helpful to mitigate some of that damage."

The Camp Ripley project began in 2014 and was set to come online this fall, though it ran into trouble in September when storms mangled a quarter of the array. The solar farm was built to withstand 105 mph winds and golf-ball-sized hail.

With the new solar capacity, Minnesota Power is on the way to meeting the state's requirement that the utility receive 1.5 percent of its power from the sun by 2020. Minnesota Power's ongoing EnergyForward plan is to source a third of its power from natural gas, coal and renewables, respectively.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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