As of March 14, the snow depth ranking across eastern Minnesota was in the 60-95 percentile while western Minnesota was in the 60-99 percentile. Rural folk have driven by covered solar panels and wondered if those panels could possibly be producing electricity.

The answer is yes and no.

“If snow covers your panels, they can’t produce power – but it’s easy to clean them off with the right equipment or wait for it to slide off,” said Dan Thiede, Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTS) strategic communications and engagement director.

Snow is not as big of a problem for solar energy as Minnesota citizens might think. Thiede pointed out that the worst of winter generally only lasts three months, and they are during the lowest months of production over the course of the year anyway, so it has minimal impact on annual production.

Thiede said there are a few things that you should know about the implications of winter weather as you consider installing a solar energy system at your farm:

1. All solar panels are designed to bear a certain amount of weight – and snow will usually not be heavy enough to cause issues. All solar panels undergo pressure tests to assess durability and quality. Ratings vary by panel, with higher pressure ratings indicating that your panels are better at withstanding the weight of heavy snow.

2. If snow covers your panels, they can’t produce power – but it’s easy to clean them off with the right equipment or wait for it to slide off. Solar panels need sunlight to produce power, so if your solar panels are covered in snow, they will not generate electricity. Most panels are tilted at an angle, so snow will slide off on its own accord, but that can take time. You can take control of the situation by getting a solar panel snow rake or similar tool made for solar panel snow removal that won’t damage the panels.

3. Winter months are actually good for solar energy production, as long as your panels aren’t covered by snow. Like most electronics, solar panels function more efficiently in cold conditions than in hot. This means that your panels will produce more power for each precious hour of sunshine during the short days of winter.

Hal Kimball, agricultural solar specialist with Blue Horizon, said Minnesota sunshine from April through October more than makes up for any energy generation shortfall during the November-January time frame.

Kimball likes selling the Blue Horizon panels with dual axis trackers. The snow falls off these models when the solar array is moving not only east to west but also up and down to follow the sun.

He’s followed along with the 2018-19 snowfall effect of a Blue Horizon solar array located not far from his home in Cokato.

“Even after 7 inches of snow, the dual axis trackers shed the snow within about half a day,” he said. “The reason for that is one, the tracker starts in the morning at about a 70-degree angle, and so a lot of the snow will be shed doing that.”

Solar panel ROI

A solar array is not cheap, but farmers are seeing a return on investment.

“For farmers, it’s an affordable way for them to control costs,” Kimball said.

He noted utility increases from 3-5 percent year over year. While it depends on the utility company, most farmers will see an ROI in 5-10 years. Farmers can take advantage of 30 percent federal tax credit. He added that the Federal tax credit will decrease to 26 percent at the end of 2019, 22 percent at the end of 2020 and 10 percent at the end of 2021.

In addition, there are long term energy savings. Minnesota mandates net metering for systems under 40kw, which means the utility company will pay the solar array owner the retail rate for excess energy that is created. The rate does fluctuate between cooperatives and utilities.

Once the solar array is paid off, farmers can generate power for about a penny per kilowatt hour – effectively reducing the electrical bill by 95 percent. Long term warranties on panels, inverters and other related items can help the farmer save thousands of dollars over the years.

“It’s pretty exciting when you can sit down and break out the numbers for folks,” he said. “That’s what a consultation really involves is taking a look at their utility bills and seeing what they’re paying, and at the different rates to show them how this pencils out.”

In addition to a return on the investment and payments from the utility company, a solar array could be a gift from one generation to the next. It should save money, and possibly make money for the family. It can reduce the amount of carbon that is released from the soil and allows a family to produce their own electricity rather than buy it.

“Farmers are really business people so they look at a solar project and they can see that it would pay for itself in that five to 10-year range,” he said. “But then, it’s really what happens after you paid off the solar array that excites folks – because you can literally reduce your bill by 95 percent.”

We will be seeing more and more solar arrays across Minnesota.

Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan announced in early March their One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy – a set of policy proposals that will lead Minnesota to 100 percent clean energy in the state’s electricity sector by 2050. The policies build on the success that Minnesota has already achieved in reducing dependence on fossil fuels and increasing the use of clean energy resources to power the state while ensuring reliable, affordable electricity.

Governor Walz’s One Minnesota Path to Clean Energy has three parts:

100 Percent Clean Energy by 2050. This standard would require all electric utilities in Minnesota to use only carbon-free energy resources by 2050, while allowing each utility the flexibility to choose how and at what pace they meet the standard. The proposal includes provisions to assist workers and communities affected by the transition, while prioritizing local jobs and prevailing wages for large new clean energy projects.

Clean Energy First. This regulatory policy would require that, whenever a utility proposes to replace or add new power generation, it must prioritize energy efficiency and clean energy resources over fossil fuels. This policy would strengthen an existing renewable energy preference in Minnesota law, and it would allow for fossil fuel-based power only if needed to ensure reliable, affordable electricity.

Energy Optimization. This proposal would raise Minnesota’s Energy Efficiency Resource Standard for investor-owned electric utilities and expand the Conservation Improvement Program that helps Minnesota households and businesses save on their utility bills by using energy more efficiently. It would also encourage utilities to develop innovative new programs to help consumers and businesses switch to more efficient, cleaner energy. In addition, it would target more energy-saving assistance for low-income households.

By the end of 2017, 25 percent of the electricity generated in Minnesota came from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.