St. Cloud turns to renewable energy to shrink utility bills

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St. Cloud turns to renewable energy to shrink utility bills

March 10, 2017

For most cities, wastewater and drinking water treatment plants are major energy hogs.

So when St. Cloud was looking for ways to trim its utility bills, it made sense to look at the sprawling wastewater treatment plant on the city's south side.

The city launched an innovative project to use renewable energy to power the plant. Solar panels generate electricity to keep it running when the sun is shining. Methane gas produced during the treatment process is captured and used to produce more electricity.

"In all likelihood, we'll be 80 percent renewable energy by 2018," said Patrick Shea, St. Cloud's public services director. "I don't know another municipality of this size in the state that's at that level."

A growing number of Minnesota cities are looking to renewable sources to reduce their energy use and meet public demands for sustainability. The cities of Hutchinson, Mankato, Red Wing and Maplewood have all recently completed solar projects.

But St. Cloud's methane recapture project is fairly cutting edge, and other cities are paying attention, said Peter Lindstrom, local government outreach coordinator for the Clean Energy Resource Teams.

"Quite frankly, it just makes a lot of sense," Lindstrom said. "These wastewater treatment plants are often times the biggest energy users that a local government has. And so any means by which they can cut that utility bill, they should and are looking at."

St. Cloud's effort began about three years ago when city officials were looking at ways to become more sustainable, Shea said. In 2015, they agreed to allow a private company to install solar panels on the roof of the wastewater treatment plant.

"We wanted to make sure we walked before we ran," Shea said. The project required no upfront costs for the city and offered guaranteed energy savings. The city agreed to buy the electricity generated by the panels for the next 20 years.\

That project paid off. A second solar array was installed next to the plant. Last fall, the city added digesters to remove the methane created during the wastewater treatment process.

SOURCE:  MN Public Radio

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