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Cass County Electric breaks ground for largest solar array in North Dakota

Paul Matthys of Cass County Electric Cooperative talks about a planned solar farm Wednesday, June 1, 2016 on the 5400 block of 63rd Street South, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 3
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FARGO — North Dakota has plenty of energy from coal, oil, gas and wind.

Now Cass County Electric Cooperative and the city of Fargo want to add solar to the mix.

Cass County Electric hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the Prairie Sun Community Solar array on Wednesday, June 1, in a field about the 5400 block of 63rd Street South in the city's far southwest reaches.

Paul Matthys, Cass County Electric's vice president for member and energy services, told those gathered that the 324 panels for the 102-kilowatt installation will make it the largest array in the state, with room on the 350-by-150-foot lot to double in size if demand from co-op members is there.

Matthys said the co-op and the city are "striving to be good stewards of the environment" in looking to add solar to the mix of power sources.

It will be the first community solar installation in the state.

Members can buy a full panel for an upfront price of $700 or a half panel for $350. The utility also has a payment plan available.

The co-op received a $140,000 grant from the state Commerce Department, much of which comes from the federal Department of Energy, said Marshal Albright, Cass County Electric president and CEO. That subsidy cut the cost of the array by 58 percent, making the project economically feasible, he said. Otherwise, the cost per panel would have been $1,670.

So far, about 70 Cass County Electric members have purchased panels and applications and another 100 are being processed, said Matthys, who added that you must be a member of the co-op to buy a panel.

Cass County Electric now produces 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of energy annually.

The solar array will produce an estimated 142,000 kilowatt hours a year, he said.

Albright said the co-op already gets 30 percent of its energy from wind power.

"We've been a leader in wind energy since Day 1," he said.

Albright and City Commissioner Mike Williams said talks about the solar array began about two years ago and the city agreed to lease the land for the array at a low cost.

Albright said the demonstration project will allow the co-op to gather data on actual power generation for a solar system in this area, as well as identify maintenance needs.

Andrea Holl Pfennig, a program administrator with the state Department of Commerce, said the project "really puts accessibility (to solar power) in everyone's hands."

"I've really seen a lot of interest in solar," Pfennig said.

A much smaller-scale solar project is in operation in Carrington, she said. It is run by the Northern Plains and Dakota Valley electric cooperatives.

Williams said Cass County Electric project has "been a long time coming," but it will be worthwhile.

"We don't have oil and coal in Fargo, but we have wind and sun," he said.

A solar garden will be built in north Moorhead in July

Dennis Eisenbraun, energy services manager for Moorhead Public Service, said the city's Capture the Sun Community Solar Garden will be on 28th Street.

Moorhead's solar garden will have 66 non-rotating panels.

Eisenbraun said Moorhead customers will pay $480 for the power output of one panel.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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