Now that the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts have wrapped up a long-awaited solar installation project, they are finding that cost savings estimates were conservative.

"We initially went in with an estimation of $20,000 to $25,000 a year, and right now we're experiencing almost $5,000 a month," said Pine River-Backus Superintendent Dave Endicott. "We may see significantly more. That will fluctuate with, obviously, weather. We don't have much sun today so we aren't making as much today."

The Pine River-Backus array has been finished and implemented since around Dec. 17, 2018, but even Pequot Lakes is seeing a higher savings.

"The solar panel system was turned on about two weeks ago," said Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm. "In just a couple weeks it's produced about 21,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. That's enough to electrify five or six regular homes. We feel great. That's a little higher than the original estimates. It's going to reduce our energy costs maybe more than we expected."

"The Pequot Lakes and Pine River sites are both performing really, really well at about 99.75 percent efficiency. It's going really well as far as their performance so far," said Erica Bjelland, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance program development specialist. "Right now there have been a few projects throughout Minnesota that have been similar to this project, but this is the largest one in Minnesota that we are aware of. I think there is starting to be more interest in having this in different areas around Minnesota and this area. Right now, we'll see what happens."

RREAL installed the solar panels.

These savings could increase as well. If electricity costs increase, Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus school districts will continue to pay the same contract price for their electricity, increasing the effective savings. For PR-B, the 2,244 ground-mounted solar panels account for 80 percent of the school's energy needs (660 kilowatts) while in Pequot Lakes, the smaller roof array (984 panels) produces approximately 20 percent (330 kilowatts).

There is still one leg of the project remaining as crews from RREAL work to finish installation of arrays in three Central Lakes College locations accounting for 236 kilowatts and 644 panels. Together, the projects produce more than 1 megawatt AC.

This is a long-awaited payoff for a project that began discussion in 2016. In the beginning, local districts reviewed the possibility of installing solar panels, but did do with high expectations. First, the school districts would only participate if it cost taxpayers nothing. Second, the school districts must be absolved of liabilities associated with the project. In the end, through an Xcel Energy grant, tax credit investor and lots of contract negotiations, they got what they needed. It was a long journey, however.

When discussions started, Pine River-Backus had Cathy Bettino as school superintendent. Back then, the three school entities involved were Pine River-Backus, Pequot Lakes and Little Falls. Discussions nearly fell apart when Little Falls backed out, and several times later when contracts seemed to be getting hung up. Persistence paid off.

"I'm fortunate. I get to walk in and see the finished product, but it was certainly a lot of people prior to me who got this project rolling and helped facilitate it," Endicott said. "This is worthwhile probably no matter what, but certainly the fact that we didn't have to invest a dime from the district to make this happen is pretty remarkable."

The panels not only serve to save money, but to provide real-world examples of solar arrays that PR-B and Pequot Lakes plan to use for science curriculum.

"The vision going forward is we save the district dollars," Lindholm said. "We are a greener district as a result and students have a greater opportunity to see electricity being generated on site and they can monitor it online to learn about solar energy. Those are the things we're excited to start stepping into in the years ahead."