Construction has begun at the St. Paul RiverCentre on what will be the Midwest’s largest garden of thermal solar panels, able to generate 1 megawatt of energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those expelled by 90 cars a year.

The project aims to install 144 solar thermal panels on the roof of the RiverCentre by January, covering an area two-thirds the size of a football field and reducing emissions by 900,000 pounds annually.

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“In the next few months, a sea of solar panels will be installed on the roof of the RiverCentre, embodying Saint Paul’s status as a model for sustainability,” St. Paul Mayor Christopher B. Coleman said.

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The energy sucked up by the panels will be used to heat water, not produce electricity. The panels will turn up to 80 percent of the absorbed sunlight into thermal energy. The RiverCentre will use the hot water produced for space and heating needs.

The project was made possible through the a $1 million grant administered by the Department of Energy (DOE) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and matching funds from District Energy St. Paul, which will install and operate the RiverCentre panels.

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St. Paul has more thermal solar projects planned. Ten buildings, including Rondo Library and Western District Police Station, have funds to construct solar thermal panels.