Minneapolis hopes solar panels will power future city vehicle fleet


Currie Maintenance Facility: A solar-power project that aims to be the largest of its kind in the upper Midwest might someday provide fuel for a fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles in Minneapolis.

The city has been selected for a $2 million grant to help buy about 3,000 solar panels for the roof of its Currie Maintenance Facility just west of downtown. The panels would generate up to 600 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power at least 80 homes.

Instead of homes, though, city officials hope to use the solar panels to power a portion of its vehicle fleet. So far the city has only one plug-in hybrid, which Mayor R.T. Rybak began driving this fall. It’s a Prius that plugs in and charges like a cell phone when it’s not in use.

“I think they’re correctly envisioning what the future is going to look like, and they’re building one of the first tangible examples,” said Travis Bradford, president of Prometheus Institute, a renewable energy think tank based in Massachusetts, when told about the city’s solar-plug-in ambitions.

The Currie building contains a repair shop, truck wash and fueling station for the city’s vehicle fleet. The site, just south of Glenwood Avenue and Cedar Lake Road, used to be a collection of horse barns until it was developed during the Great Depression.

The solar panels are part of a push to cut greenhouse emissions from city vehicles back closer to what they were in those horse-and-buggy days. The city has 28 hybrids in its fleet, all of which it says could be converted to plug-ins. It has 134 flex-fuel vehicles that can run on E-85 ethanol blend gasoline, and it also uses a car-sharing service called HOURCAR.

Last year the city spent $40,000 installing two dozen solar panels top of the Currie building. They went online in May 2006 and generate about 4.2 kilowatts of electricity under ideal conditions. If the city is successful in adding the new solar panels, the system will be by far the largest solar project in the state. Minnesota’s largest solar arrays are 40-kilowatt systems at both Pellco Machine in St. Michael and Quality Bicycle Parts in Bloomington. A 72-kilowatt system is in the works at Great River Energy in Maple Grove.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission still needs to approve the grant, which would come from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund. The Legislature created the fund in 1999. A fee on customers’ electricity bills goes into the fund to pay for renewable energy projects and research. An advisory board selected Minneapolis for the award last week.