North St. Paul family harnesses energy from the sun

submitted photo • Though the installation of 10 solar panels on the Nelson’s garage roof took just three days, there were about two and a half months of research and two weeks of paperwork that went into having them installed.

submitted photo • Dave and Donna Nelson chose to have commercial-style solar panels installed at their North St. Paul home instead of residential panels, because commercial panels have more surface area, making them more efficient. The panels ought to reduce the couple’s carbon footprint by 4.62 tons of carbon each year.

Aundrea Kinney

Review staff


Dave and Donna Nelson, who are known for their volunteer work at the Southwood Nature Preserve, have become the first North St. Paul residents to install solar panels at their home to supply all of their electricity. The final panels went up Nov. 15.

After living in their North St. Paul home on Fourth Avenue East for more than 30 years, the Nelsons first began researching solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint for the sake of future generations. 

“It was something that we wanted to do for the kids and the grandkids,” Dave explained.

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon compounds emitted as a result of someone’s consumption of fossil fuels. 

The 10-panel system the Nelsons installed on their garage is set to offset 4.62 tons of carbon each year.

That’s the equivalent of half of a car’s annual emissions, according to solar specialist Ben Maki, or the same reduction that would come with not burning 146 gallons of gasoline.

Maki is a project manager for Live Wire, the company Dave and Donna hired to install their Minnesota-made panels.

For the Nelsons, it all began when they attended an educational meeting on solar energy held at the Maplewood Community Center. They agreed the meeting was a helpful launching point for what ended up being two and a half months of research.

That much research, of course, is not required before purchasing solar panels, Maki said, but it doesn’t hurt. “A lot of our sales is education. A lot of homeowners don’t necessarily know what a solar electric system is.”

Dave said that while researching their options, he and Donna learned that homes with solar panels sell faster, and for more money, than homes without. He also said they learned that in Minnesota, properties cannot be taxed for the value of renewable energy. 

He said those were just some of the reasons they decided to go for it.

There were also the financial incentives. For Dave and Donna, federal and state tax credits helped bring down the cost of their $18,600 project, and by taking out a home improvement loan from their bank, they will be able to write off the interest on their taxes. 

After taking advantage of all the financial perks they could, the cost of the project dropped to about $11,600.

However, Maki pointed out that some of these perks won’t be around forever. He said that a possible solar tariff is on the horizon and the federal incentives are set to begin ramping down in 2019.

“Right now is kind of the best time to get into solar,” he said.


Making it all happen

After the Nelsons were ready to move forward with their purchase, they took bids from five different installation companies, ultimately selecting Live Wire because it was the only company to offer the commercial-style panels the Nelsons wanted, which saved them about $2,000, according to Dave.

“Our sales guy met with Dave and Donna and went through their consumption history for the electric bills and sized an appropriately sized system for them,” Maki said.

After that, the Nelsons spent about two weeks getting all of the required paperwork in order — Dave noted there is a lot of paperwork involved — but the installation itself only took about three days.

The Nelsons opted to have their 10 panels tied to the electric grid, which Maki noted is the most common scenario, with the alternative being the use of batteries. 

By remaining connected to the grid, Dave and Donna can still purchase energy from the city as needed, and they will be credited for the energy they produce. 

A bidirectional meter was installed at their home to keep track of the energy entering and exiting the system, and because the Nelsons have decided to scale their solar system to produce 120 percent of their annual consumption, it is likely they will receive checks from the electric utilities for the extra energy they add to the grid. 

In Minnesota, the energy produced in situations like this has to be purchased from residents at the same rate the residents would be charged to buy it.

Dave explained that if they had paid for their system outright and not taken out a loan, it would take about 11 years to see a return on their investment. He added that each panel has a 30-year life expectancy and the output drops only about 1.5 percent over the 30 year period.


Community benefits

Although there are plenty of benefits for the Nelsons, North St. Paul Mayor Mike Kuehn explained there are benefits for the city as well, such as reducing the demand for electricity at peak times and acting as a learning opportunity for other residents.

“One project probably won’t make a huge difference,” Kuehn said. “But to lessen the demand at peak times ultimately could lead to [slightly] lower rates because the more demand, the higher the rates we’re charged for buying that electricity.”

Kuehn said other residents also have an opportunity to see how the system is set up and to maybe even stop by and talk with Dave and Donna, to learn more about their experience.

“The small-scale types of things like Dave and Donna are doing could be a really good asset for helping us become less reliant on fuel resources — hopefully reducing pollution and our foreign oil needs,” Kuehn said, adding, “I think it’s a great thing and I hope more people will look at this.”

Brian Frandle, North St. Paul’s director of electric utilities, explained that the different kinds of systems, such as stand-alone or roof-mounted, require different permits, and as soon as a resident knows what type of system and how many panels he or she plans to install, the resident should contact the city.

Although having solar panels mounted right on residents’ homes does have its advantages, it may still be financially out of reach for some. For those interested in investing in sustainable energy without purchasing solar panels, the city offers the Clean Energy Choice program to both homeowners and renters.

“I believe our Clean Energy Choice program has some good benefits,” Frandle said. “With a low and predictable cost of $1 to $3 per month on top of your regular utility bill, a resident can increase the amount of renewable energy they receive to 50, 75 or 100 percent.” 

Frandle added that North St. Paul residents already receive at least 17 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, as required by Minnesota law.

Whether residents choose to install their own solar panels or participate in the Clean Energy Choice Program, it is clear that solar has come to North St. Paul, and for those seeking sustainable energy, options are available.


– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or

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