Tip of the hat to downtown beautification efforts in Minneapolis

(Finance & Commerce, March 15, 2012)—A full slate of high-profile, ambitious plans are on the horizon for downtown Minneapolis parks and public spaces, from a Sculpture Garden expansion and Nicollet Mall renovation to the proposed Gateway and Water Works parks that would better connect the city to its riverfront.

All of those projects won’t be enough to satisfy David Wilson.

“We will not be successful if we only achieve those big goals,” said Wilson, chairman of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s greening and public realm committee. (His day job is managing partner at one of downtown’s largest employers, Accenture.)

As Wilson and his committee see it, making downtown as green, pleasant and inviting as possible will also require countless smaller efforts from businesses and individuals — from sidewalk planters to urban gardens.

That’s why the improvement district honored the best of these unsung efforts Tuesday at its second annual Greening and Public Realm Awards, which were presented at the Minneapolis Central Library. The awards recognize residents, businesses, associations and community members who enhance downtown by creating and maintaining greenery in public spaces. Continue reading “Tip of the hat to downtown beautification efforts in Minneapolis”

Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning

(Finance & Commerce, November 7, 2011)—You swipe a credit card at a vending machine-sized kiosk. A clothing rack whirls around inside until your shirt or blouse appears. A robotic arm plucks it from the rack by the hanger and passes it to a glass enclosure in front of you. You pop open a door, grab your receipt and your freshly cleaned garments, and away you go.

Is this the future of dry cleaning?

Two local dry-cleaning chains this fall have unveiled the Twin Cities’ first-of-their-kind “dry cleaning ATM” kiosks. White Way Cleaners installed one at a Minneapolis skyway location in September. Last month, Mulberrys Garment Care installed one in the Ridgedale Byerly’s store.

Both companies view the kiosks as a way to extend service into hours and locations that wouldn’t be feasible for staffing with employees. If the machines prove successful, Mulberrys and White Way envision them springing up in skyways, condo and apartment buildings, office towers, gas stations and grocery stores all across town.

“We want to be one of the first to bring dry cleaning into the modern world,” said Dan Miller, Mulberrys’ founder and CEO. He compares the potential impact to what ATMs did for banking or Red Box did for DVD rentals — giving customers a quick, easy, always-open option for dropping off and picking up their dry cleaning. Continue reading “Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning”

Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—On their way to becoming solar-electric panels, more than half of the world’s silicon solar cells produced today reportedly pass through a furnace made by a century-old Lakeville manufacturer.

What’s more, the company only started supplying the solar industry four years ago. Despatch Industries now owns more than 60 percent of the global market for firing furnaces used in solar cell production, according to John Farrell, managing director of Despatch’s solar business group — its largest segment last year.

Despatch has shipped hundreds of solar cell furnaces to China, Taiwan and other Asian countries, where most solar cell manufacturing occurs. Yet its role in the solar industry is mostly unknown in Minnesota.

More than 100 years ago, the company began making heaters for Minneapolis streetcars. Today, Despatch is part of what Lynn Hinkle, policy development director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, calls the state’s “invisible” solar supply chain, a cluster of companies quietly producing parts and equipment for the global solar industry.

A new push is under way to shine more light on these solar suppliers in hopes of further building up the industry in Minnesota. Continue reading “Solar suppliers try to find place in the sun”

How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?

(Finance & Commerce, October 24, 2011)—Silicon Energy became Minnesota’s second solar-electric panel manufacturer when it started shipping rooftop units from its Iron Range factory in mid-September. It joins Bloomington-based TenKsolar, which began selling its commercial systems in 2010.

The companies are getting a boost from a made-in-Minnesota solar rebate program for Xcel Energy customers. And given the state of the industry, they’ll need all the help they can get.

“New startup companies are going to have a very, very difficult time competing with established companies,” said Junko Movellan, an analyst with Solarbuzz, a market research group in San Francisco. There’s a worldwide oversupply of solar modules now, and she predicts the industry faces a big shakeout in the months ahead.

On top of that, Minnesota isn’t the easiest place to sell solar-electric systems, but not for the reason you might think. Our weather is actually an asset; solar-electric systems perform better in the cold. Rather, it’s the state’s comparatively cheap electricity rates that make it harder for customers to recoup investment costs.

The industry has been called the “solar-coaster” because of all its ups and downs. How do these Minnesota startups plan to hang on? Continue reading “How will Silicon Energy and TenKsolar manage in oversupplied solar panel market?”