Mortenson’s Renewable Energy Group has started installing an 1,820-panel, 400-kilowatt array of photovoltaic panels near St. John’s Abbey in the community 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
The Collegeville solar development makes use of a state-issued $2 million renewable development fund grant from Xcel Energy Inc. The solar array will be mounted on nearly four acres of farmland.
Scheduled to be completed by the end of November, the array will provide about 4 percent of the annual electricity for St. John’s University and adjacent Benedictine Catholic monastery, which are 15 miles northwest of St. Cloud.
“St. John’s Abbey and university are committed to reducing their carbon footprint and to the development of renewable energy sources that have a minimal impact on the environment,” said Aaron Raverty, a spokesman for St. John’s Abbey.
“Another aspect is that this solar farm will be available to the students of St. John’s University as an experimental site providing the university’s environmental studies department with a very accessible research facility that can be used as a part of their curriculum,” Raverty said.
The total project cost is about $3 million, which represents a combination of the renewable development fund grant, private investment and federal tax incentives.
Located on land owned by St. John’s Abbey, the solar array is a 21st-century example of self-sufficiency that has been a trademark of monasteries throughout the centuries.
“This solar farm is one more example of how St. John’s Abbey and the university wish to provide leadership in the development of renewable energy resources that both pave the way for satisfying future renewable energy needs and afford educational opportunities for its students,” said Raverty.
Ever since the abbey’s mid-1800s founding in Collegeville, the monks of St. John’s have sought out ways to develop and use local resources.
They included using bricks made from local clay to build many of the campus’s first buildings, harvesting and replanting trees to maintain woodlands surrounding St. John’s, obtaining arboretum status for most of the campus land, protecting lakes by limiting motorboat access, and, just this fall, completing the first LEED-certified building.
Partnering with M.A. Mortenson Co. to erect the solar array is Eden Prairie-based Westwood Renewables, which designed the solar development north and west of the St. John’s University campus and adjacent abbey.
After staking out 35 rows for the photovoltaic panels, crews have advanced to pouring foundations to hold support posts for the rectangular panels. Following that, a sun-tracking system that lets the photovoltaic panels gather the most direct sunlight will be installed.
And what if it snows? Snow blockage should be minimal, according to Raverty.
“Due to the nature of glass smooth surface and module angle, most of the time snow accumulation will be minimal,” he said. “Additional internal heat generation due to the (solar) module color will enhance snow melting rates.”
After completion, the solar array is expected to generate 575,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, peaking at about 20 percent of St. John’s energy needs during peak the summer.
The array is expected to generate enough energy to power 65 homes, and is to be roughly four times the size of the next-largest solar array in the upper Midwest.