An unusual combination of beekeepers, cider makers and a solar installation is turning out what is called “Solar Sweet Farm Cider”. The cider is a collaboration with the beekeepers at Bare Honey who tend a family of honey bees on the solar farm adjacent to Milk & Honey Ciders, in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
IPS Solar designed the solar farm, and Fresh Energy helped make the connection between the beekeepers and the cidery. Fresh Energy is a nonprofit group whose mission is “to shape and drive realistic, visionary energy policies that benefit all”. IPS develops all of its solar farms to have pollinator habitat and Fresh Energy has guided solar farms in providing beneficial habitat for pollinators including bees and butterflies—a practice that has taken off in Europe and is just taking hold in the US. Minnesota Native Landscapes manages the flowers and vegetation at the solar farm.
The solar installation, a 6.51MW DC fixed-tilt system with 19,440 solar panels spread over 60-acre span, is hard for travelers to miss as they drive along I-94 just north of St. Joseph, Minnesota.
The system will produce enough electricity to power about 1,040 average homes in the area.
The community solar aspect
The school districts of St. Cloud, Annandale, and Paynesville School Districts are the primary subscribers to the energy produced, along with local manufacturer Louis Industries. Louis Industries previously installed 500 kilowatts of panels on its roof in 2015 and decided to expand even more with community solar.
Solar learning curriculum
In addition to installing the solar and developing the pollinator habitat, IPS Solar helps schools incorporate solar and STEM learning into their curriculum. IPS has a program for schools called IPS Solar4Schools, which offers participating school districts access to curriculum it developed that includes standards-based K-12 solar energy and energy efficiency lesson plans, teacher guides, student worksheets, presentations and links to online resources. They can also request that a qualified IPS Solar employee present the material and work with students in the classroom. Within the curriculum, students can chart data based on power performance, solar irradiance and the weather, then conduct experiments and learn about the technology behind solar.
Solar site pollinator habitat
Project Manager for IPS Laura Cina says “I think all of the old school solar installers are really just big hippies at heart, so if it costs a little extra to plant vegetation that will boost biodiversity, prevent erosion, help save the pollinators, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
For solar sites to claim pollinator/wildlife habitat benefits, there is a scorecard, which gives points for the ratio of wildflowers to native species, to cover diversity and more. In Minnesota it’s provided by the state’s Water and Soil Resources Department. This site scored a 95, which means it provides exceptional habitat.
“It is encouraging that more and more people are recognizing the agricultural, ecological, and economic benefits of establishing flowering and low-growing meadows under and around solar arrays. Milk & Honey’s new cider provides another opportunity for local interests to find common ground and support more clean energy,” said Rob Davis, director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy.
Making a real difference
The solar installation, which has been operational for about a year, is producing what IDS anticipated. IPS Chief Development Officer, Eric Pasi says “Over the course of 25 years, subscribers to this solar garden should see total savings in excess of $8,000,000 and the system has already produced 8.2 Gigawatt hours since it went online October 12th of last year.” said Pasi. “We’re making a real difference both economically and environmentally.”