Minnesota Solar Industry Forecasts Growth as Capacity and Consumption Continue to Increase – InForum

A steady increase in solar power capacity in Minnesota since 2013 is just the beginning of industry growth, experts predict, as more Minnesota residents, communities and businesses turn to cleaner energy sources.

Solar power accounted for 3.2% of Minnesota’s energy capacity in 2021. While it doesn’t sound like much, the Minnesota Department of Commerce reports that this figure represents a 217% growth in solar power capacity over just five years.

Logan O’Grady, who serves as executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said a combination of the state’s energy consumers, community initiatives and legislative policies will lead to continued growth in the renewable energy industry.

Before the solar industry can continue to grow, consumers must first know that solar power is a reliable option. For that, O’Grady suggests taking a look at who’s already using it.

Logan O’Grady

“If solar wasn’t a viable option, we wouldn’t see Minnesotans, communities, small businesses, family farms and large corporations investing in solar,” O’Grady told the Forum News Service.

He’s quick to point out that solar power is no longer just a single panel in a home, but has now grown to power entire commercial and industrial ventures.

“Here in Minnesota alone, Flint Hills Resources — the region’s largest oil refinery — is making the largest investment of its kind in solar energy. It’s a 40 megawatt (MW) solar project that will help reduce their electric bills,” said O’Grady. “Then there’s Target, Cargill, and many other big companies that are making big investments in solar.”

Though just over the border in River Falls, Wisconsin, O’Grady also looks to Tattersall Distilling, which installed more than 1,000 solar panels in January to offset all of its manufacturing facility’s energy use.

In fact, almost entire cities can rely on solar energy.

In January 2019, the Minnetonka City Council launched an initiative to bring solar power to city facilities. According to the city’s website, all city buildings, streetlights, and water systems are powered by community solar gardens. The city’s Public Works Department told the Forum News Service that 74.8% of the electricity consumed comes from solar power, saving the city an estimated $12.5 million over 25 years and reducing carbon emissions offsetting the removal of 700 cars from the road each year.

There are 50 solar panels in the array.  REA plans to add more if there is enough interest.  (Contributed)
This 50-panel solar system was first built in 2015 by the Runestone Electric Association in Alexandria. After consumers bought the rights to them, the Association built 100 more in 2016.

Post / Runestone Electric Association

Subscription-based solar power offers savings for consumers

While it’s not necessarily uncommon to spot a solar panel on the roof of a home, not all properties are ideal for solar energy. The positioning of trees, the orientation of structures, or the lack of flat, open areas can all play a role in determining whether a property is suitable for solar installation.

However, community solar gardens can solve this problem. Community solar gardens are located away from the consumer and are sprawling arrays of solar panels that customers can purchase or lease the rights to the solar energy covered by the array.

The Clean Energy Resource Team (CERT), which operates across Minnesota, is identifying 39 community solar gardens statewide that are owned by a mix of cooperatives, municipalities and investors.

The Runestone Electric Association (REA), based south of Alexandria, said its community solar garden offers solar power to subscribers in seven counties.

“Our first communal solar garden went into operation in 2015. We started with a 50 panel facility and were able to sell that to members fairly quickly,” said Ryan Rooney, REA’s manager of energy services and business development. “In 2016 we decided to expand that and add 100 panels.”

Rooney explained that in REA’s backyard, subscribers are purchasing the rights to a solar panel and are entitled to the energy the panel can capture over its 20-year lifespan. Any energy derived from the solar panels is credited to the consumer’s account.

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The Minnesota Department of Commerce reported that by 2021, solar panels in the state have captured enough energy to power 200,000 homes.

Post / Minnesota Department of Commerce

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricity costs in Minnesota in November were 16 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Rooney said solar power would cost about 10 cents per kWh after any credits from solar power were deducted from the cost of purchasing the rights. It is estimated that REA subscribers save $5 per panel per month – but several panels could see these savings escalating to hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.

“The greatest bit is that it allows [subscribers] to avoid the hassle of maintenance and performance monitoring [at-home] row,” Rooney said. “It also gives you the opportunity to switch. If you buy the output for the panels, you can sell them to the new owner when you move, transfer them to a new account, or even give them away to someone else. It’s the flexibility to do whatever you want with it in the future.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, by 2021, solar panels in Minnesota were producing enough energy to fully power about 200,000 homes.

The future of solar energy in Minnesota? ‘Growth’

The Minnesota Department of Commerce Annual Solar Report shows that solar energy is becoming a broader energy choice in almost every aspect. O’Grady believes these increases will be fueled by some past and future legislative initiatives.

Governor Tim Pawlenty

Governor Tim Pawlenty

It all started when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 into Minnesota law. O’Grady said the legislation is the first time specific carbon emission reduction targets have been set in the state and that the utility companies’ action plans have helped boost the solar industry.

The Next Generation Energy Act called for a 30% reduction in the state’s emissions by 2025 and 80% by 2050. However, Minnesota fell short of its 2015 target of 15% and is therefore not on track to meet the 2025 target reach a government agency.

In 2019, Governor Tim Walz signed the climate change executive order into law, emphasizing the need for government agencies to work together to address climate change and drive innovative policies. It has also created the Sub-Cabinet on Climate Change and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change, which work together to identify policies and strategies to correct trends in reducing carbon emissions.

Many other state and federal programs have also pushed carbon reductions and increased industry funding.

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Logan O’Grady, Executive Director of MnSEIA, speaks before a Senate committee on legislation to expand an incentive program for solar power generation.

Contributed / MnSEIA

O’Grady said this year’s Minnesota election gives him even more optimism for the future.

“We were not prepared for the election results. For whatever reason, Republicans tend to be less friendly toward solar, and they shouldn’t be, because we’re talking about jobs, economic development and small businesses,” he said. “Some legislators tend to like their utilities because they power their constituents. Some of the larger Minnesota legislatures have co-ops instead of investor-owned utilities. … You’d be shocked at how many lawmakers sit on the committee and say, ‘This is a complete scam, solar doesn’t work in Minnesota.’”

Still, with the Democratic Farmers-Labor Party controlling the state legislature and executive branch, O’Grady looks forward to certain legislation that would increase funding and opportunities for solar energy to power more public buildings and school districts across the state. Bills addressing these issues are expected to undergo legislative debate in the state’s upcoming legislature.

“I think there’s one word that describes the future of solar energy in Minnesota, and that’s growth,” O’Grady summarized. “It’s going to be an exciting year to see what other great public policies come out and everything points to growth — and that’s great news for Minnesota because that means more businesses here and more workers.”

O’Grady said anyone skeptical about solar power should contact three different companies to see if solar power could be beneficial for them. For a list of Minnesota solar energy resources, visit the Minnesota SEIA, CERT, or state Department of Commerce websites.



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