Solar panels line NYM School roof

Contributed photo
A number of grants helped to fund a solar panel project at the New York Mills School District last year. The entire project was several years in the making.

By Tucker Henderson


The New York Mills School District took on a project late last summer and into the fall to utilize some of their new roof space and to cut down on energy expenses each month. Through the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the school was able to install solar panels on the roof of the school building.

“It actually took us about two years to get it off the ground,” said Superintendent Blaine Novak of the project. “There were certain schools that were identified that would meet the criteria. We were the first phase of schools that qualified for the grant. They reached out to us and (the school board) decided to move forward with it.”

The initial cost of the project was $174,640 for the district, but with a grant of $102,000 from Solar for Schools and another $60,000 paid through a solar incentive from Otter Tail Power, the school only paid a total of $12,640 for the project.

“We have a $12,000 expense to our taxpayers, but we saved $4,000 in the first year,” said Novak. “After three years, we’ve already recovered our cost. Cumulatively, over 20 years, we’re saving over $140,000. If you take that out even further, you just continue to save money as time goes on.”

Novak said that the solar panels should last at least 20 years and have a longevity of up to 40 years with rising savings each year in place. As Novak explained, there is an estimated savings of about $4,300 in the first year of use and almost $7,000 in the 25th year after installation. Those cumulative figures reach that $140,000 mark at that point in the timeline.

“They tell us that our greatest energy savings are going to happen during your summer months,” said Novak. “During the winter, the sun is setting lower and you may have some snow coverage, so it is going to be less during the winter, but like this past winter, it was still being used.”

Novak said that the snow coverage is not removed during the winter as cleaning the solar panels off can risk damage to the units. The panels are primarily used in the summer months and very little maintenance is needed for their upkeep.

“You let them be and any maintenance that needs to be done goes back to the grant, to iDEAL Energies,” said Novak. “They are pretty much maintenance free once they’re installed. If you had a hail storm or anything, you’re insured for that.”

One requirement for the grant is that solar energy systems be incorporated into the curriculum at the school, which is currently being taught in the fifth and sixth grade courses.

“There is a curriculum component with it,” Novak said. “Part of the grant requires that the solar energy piece to be taught within the curriculum. It does work into our STEM projects and right now we’re using that with our fifth and sixth grade STEM.

“We do lesson plans from iDEAL Energies with them,” he continued. “Then we do some other solar activities.”

Included in those lessons are the reasons why solar energy is being utilized at the school and in different capacities around the nation. There is an opportunity to monitor the solar panels’ progress with the NY Mills Solar Portal available on the school’s website.

According to the Solar Portal from iDEAL Energies, the school’s solar panels have created 28.66 MWh (megawatt hours) in the past eight months. Each megawatt hour is equal to 1,000 kilowatt hours of which the average household uses 776 of each month. In May, 8.56 MWh were created on top of the school’s roof.

The Solar Portal also states that the environmental benefits of the solar panels during its short lifetime are already equal to 44,375.21 pounds of CO2 emission saved and the equivalent of 335.29 trees planted.

According to the Solar for Schools program through the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the benefits of the panels include reduced energy costs, opportunities for students to learn about solar power, local economical benefits from clean energy jobs, reduction of electricity-based greenhouse gas emissions, and the addition of a renewable source of energy for the school.

For more Solar for Schools Program info visit