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St. Paul businesses going solar with the help of customers
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Jeff Sommers owns Izzy's Ice Cream shop in St. Paul. This month he'll install enough solar panels to cover his entire 6,000-sq. ft. roof. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Energy prices are up. A gallon of gas is hovering around $2, and projections are that natural gas is going to be much more expensive this winter. The high cost of energy is leading many people to look toward alternative sources of energy. Some businesses in St. Paul are looking into solar energy. But there are obstacles to making solar an affordable option for everybody.

St. Paul, Minn. — Few businesses, especially profitable ones, ask their customers to pitch in for the electricity. But, at Izzy's Ice cream shop in St. Paul, owner Jeff Sommers is doing just that.

In fact, there's a donation jar next to the cash register, asking patrons to help pay for a roof full of solar panels.

"We're in the ice cream business, so all of our energy use coincides with the sun," says Sommers. "So for me, it's a natural fit. There's a one-to-one relationship between my power use and how busy our facility is."

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Image Asking for donations

Sommers says in just a few months he's raised about $10,000 solely from customers.

Sommers was turned on to solar energy when he started looking at backup power sources for the ice cream shop. If the power went out on a not summer day, he wanted to keep scooping. So Sommers is covering his entire 6,000 sq. ft. roof with solar panels.

It's expensive. Sommers estimates it will cost him about $60,000, mainly for the panels, their installation, and connection to the electrical grid. Sommers medium-sized power system will provide about one-third of his peak electricity use.

He was inspired by the experience of another business, the Old Man River Café in West St. Paul.

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Image Ice cream freezer

"As far as we know, we're the world's first and only solar-powered, shade-grown coffee roaster," says café owner Jon Kerr.

Kerr and his partner installed a small solar system on the roof of the café to power their coffee roaster. The system was installed in December 2003, and has been fully operational since June. They purchased the system with $10,000 in donations from customers.

Kerr says he's pretty sure people didn't donate just for the free coffee they get for contributing. He says people support solar because they feel they can contribute in a small way to the community and to the environment.

"In these times particularly, the political connections of energy are really obvious, too. We've talked about it almost as being a patriotic act, making us less dependent on sources of declining fossil fuels. It's something that should make sense to everybody in this country," Kerr says.

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Image Making coffee

Solar power has found support in state government as well. Minnesota is one of just a few states offering rebates for solar. A resident or business owner who installs a solar system can get back up to $8,000.

The rebates don't come from taxes. They come from a $1 million renewable energy fund from Xcel Energy, Minnesota's largest electrical utility. It's part of a trade-off negotiated with the Legislature over nuclear waste storage at Xcel's Prairie Island plant.

Xcel's Andy Sulkko says despite the state rebate and some federal tax incentives for businesses, solar remains among the most expensive forms of energy to produce.

"I don't think in the near future we're going to see enough of these -- primarily just through the economics of it -- that you're going to see power plants being avoided," says Sulkko. "One thing solar does do, is it does provide good energy on some of our hottest days of the year. So it does help out our system when it's very hot."

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Image Customers came through

Solar power today costs half of what it did a decade ago, but it's still five times more expensive than wind-generated power. For example, at Izzy's ice cream shop, owner Jeff Sommers' solar panels won't pay for themselves for about 40 years.

That's one reason Xcel doesn't think solar panels will be sprouting up on most rooftops in Minnesota. But for business owners like Sommers, solar power isn't only about generating electricity, it's about generating ideas for the future.

"We serve children. It's sort of the responsibility to lead and model what you would expect of your own children or neighbor's children, or the children that you teach, and so that's another reason that it seems logical," says Sommers.

Izzy's expects its solar panels to start powering its ice cream freezers sometime this month.

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