Little Falls Schools formally withdraw from solar project

Staff Writer

The Little Falls School Board approved exiting the Region 5 Solar for Schools project.

This, upon the recommendation of Supt. Steve Jones, who said the deal wasn’t good for the district.

Before the Board voted Monday, representatives from the project made one last pitch.

“There would be no cost to the school district for the duration of the entire project. In fact, we believe and remain convinced there would be significant savings over the 20-year project life,” Jason Edens, director of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) said.

This project would reduce and stabilize the district’s long-term utilities costs and would have educational value for the schools, Edens said.

Despite the original proposed provider of the solar panels going out of business, Edens said the project would go forward with another company, which would produce the panels in Minnesota.

Jones said while he appreciated the work Region 5 had done on the project, which also includes the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts, he had concerns.

In a worst-case scenario, Little Falls would have originally received an estimated, $1,000 a year for 20 years, despite generating over half the electricity for the project.

“When you came to the Board I was a little stunned over the prospect of $20,000 over 20 years, when I had $7,000 in lawyer fees already,” Jones said. Despite Edens saying Region 5 would cover insurance and lawyer fees, Jones said the original deal contained no such language.

Edens said Little Falls would receive less due to its rates being lower, but Jones said that didn’t diminish the liability that would come with hosting that much of the project.

Jones said now Region 5 was offering the district $37,500 and a legal fee cap of $100,000 which still concerned Jones, as $35,000 in legal fees has accumulated and no contract is signed.

Little Falls would also pay an estimated $600 per year for insurance over 20 years.

“But yet you can sit here and tell me it’s not going to cost the district anything,” Jones said. “If I would have accepted your first offer, what you told us was the best offer months ago, we would have been in tough shape.”

Jones said despite having respect for Region 5 and the individuals that worked on the project, he didn’t think this was a good idea for the Little Falls School District.

Directors Brad Laager and Cathy Adamek said they thought the district did not have the money to risk on the project, but both said they like the idea of incorporating solar energy into the district.

Little Falls School District would not be removed from consideration for future projects due to its withdrawal, Region 5 Deputy Director Nichole Larson said.

The withdrawal was approved 4-0, with Board Chair Sharon Ballou abstaining due to also being on the Region 5 Development Commission.