Sustainable: Solar energy growing fast in Minnesota

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Sustainable: Solar energy growing fast in Minnesota

November 2, 2016

In three rural areas near the Twin Cities, new community solar gardens will be turned on in November, representing another example of what has become a booming market in Minnesota for electricity generated by the sun.

The three projects are owned by Roseville-based Innovative Power Systems, one of the state’s pioneering solar firms. To manage not only community solar gardens but also a host of commercial projects, the firm has doubled its workforce to 24 employees over the past 12 months and moved to a more spacious office, according to Eric Pasi, vice president of business development.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in the commercial and industrial markets, and community solar,” Pasi said. “That represents 99 percent of our growth. We’re finding commercial real estate investors interested in doing solar are getting a return similar to other real estate investments.”

IPS’s experience is hardly unique. Martin Morud, owner of Minneapolis-based TruNorth Solar, said his firm has tripled its staff in three years. The demand “for clean energy is constantly growing and the industry is growing to keep up with that desire,” he said.

North Star Solar, the largest project in Minnesota and likely the largest in the Midwest, just went live in Chisago County. Developed by Community Energy Solar of Radnor, Pennsylvania, and managed by D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, the $180 million project sells its electric output to Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc. More big, utility-scale projects — as they are called — are underway to sell power to Xcel.

The Washington, D.C.-based Solar Foundation’s 2016 report on Minnesota said the industry will add 410 jobs this year, enough to expand the total solar workforce by 20 percent. Minnesota has nearly 2,000 jobs in solar, the report said, ahead of most Midwestern states except much more populous ones such as Michigan and Illinois.

“This research shows that the Minnesota solar industry is a growing source of economic opportunity, creating jobs that pay living wages and are largely available to individuals across the state, regardless of previous experience in the industry,” the report said.

Other numbers tell the story, too. The Minnesota Department of Commerce reports that in 2015 the state had 35 megawatts of solar, according to Ross Corson, agency spokesman. The state has nearly 280 megawatts of solar completed or in the works, he said, and that number does not include community solar projects.

Reasons for solar’s growth

A variety of factors are fueling the solar surge. One is community solar gardens. While the Legislature passed a law to create community gardens in 2013 in Xcel Energy’s territory, it has taken until now to see gardens come online.

The gardens, owned by private developers, offer 25-year subscriptions to businesses, institutions and residents looking to buy solar power for their energy needs. A subscriber can offset all or part of their electricity needs with solar energy generated by the garden and generally save money by doing so. Subscribers essentially become investors in the solar garden, as opposed to utility-scale solar projects, which have one owner and a much larger energy output.

In Minnesota, hundreds of megawatts are under development in gardens, with more than 100 megawatts likely to go live this year, and much more on the way next year, said Lee Gabler, director of Customer Strategy & Solutions for Xcel Energy.

In IPS’s case, all the gardens are fully subscribed by school districts, residents and businesses. One solar garden is on property owned by the cheesemaker Ed Eichten of the well-known Eichten’s Hidden Acres farm in Chisago County, Pasi said. IPS’s other new projects are in Red Wing and Young America.

The program is popular enough that even small startups such as Cooperative Energy Futures in Minneapolis have found receptive subscribers for solar gardens in north Minneapolis and Edina, according to general manager Timothy DenHerder-Thomas. Subscriptions for both projects have sold well. “I’d say a substantial part of the solar boom in Minnesota is community solar,” he said.

Community solar — and solar in general — isn’t just confined to Xcel’s territory, according to TruNorth Solar’s Michael Kampmeyer. While Kampmeyer manages the booming community solar division, he also points to other projects that represent a growing interest in solar energy.

For example, Great River Energy in Maple Grove hired TruNorth to install panels at 19 electric cooperatives. Nine of those co-ops opted to build an additional section for community solar programs. A 2.25-megawatt solar project in Dickinson for Rockford-based Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association, in collaboration with Great River, became operational in late August. “I think we’re going to see big growth in solar in the co-op markets, too,” said Kampmeyer.

A state mandate that utilities generate 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar by 2020 has encouraged the adoption of solar, even in the northern region, where Minnesota Power, a division of ALLETE Inc. in Duluth, announced over the summer that it is seeking proposals from developers to build solar projects, including community gardens.

Community Energy Solar’s Chase Whitney said the requirement moved Xcel to ask for utility-scale solar proposals in 2014 that are now nearing completion. Those include Aurora Solar, which will produce 100 megawatts collectively from 16 sites around the state, and a 62-megawatt project in Marshall.

While the mandate jump-started solar in Minnesota, the “significant drop in the price” of panels and the ability to provide power in peak demand parts of the day has begun to make solar competitive without any encouragement from state governments, he said. Indeed, Xcel’s most recent long-range plan calls for building 1,400 megawatts of solar by 2030.

SOURCE:  Finance & Commerce

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