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Solar in Minnesota: a marriage of increasingly popular objectives with enlightened public policy

We have goals of generating 1.5 percent of our electricity need by 2020 from solar energy development.

Minnesotans are squinting up at the sun and leaning into the wind in efforts to link their pocketbooks and the natural environment to benefit both from clean energy development and economic development.

Lee Egerstrom

We now get about 15 percent of our total electricity generated by windmills on wind farms, primarily in southern and southwestern Minnesota. We have goals of generating 1.5 percent of our electricity need by 2020 from solar energy development, but the flurry of development activity currently under way suggests that may be a low target.

Economics and “green” energy development are merging with solar developments, insists David Wakely of Minnesota Community Solar in Minneapolis, the firm that has developed the first “community solar gardens” that feed electricity into Xcel Energy’s distribution territory.

Minnesota Community Solar (MNCS) is now expanding into rural communities. It announced in August it is building a four-acre Gaylord Community Solar Garden in the Gaylord Industrial Park west of the Twin Cities. The project is a partnership with local social entrepreneurs Steve Mangold and Paula King with Mangold’s Front Row Energy company.

Similar rural-sited projects are on the drawing board, Wakely said.

Subscribing for solar energy

With the Gaylord project, residents of Carver, Le Sueur, McLeod, Nicollet, Renville, Scott and Sibley counties in Xcel Energy’s distribution areas can “subscribe,” or contract for solar produced energy. Subscribers select the number of units, or “leaves” that suit their household or business needs. Current projections show they may save as much as 35 percent off their electricity bills during the 25-years of the contract.

The rapid spread and development of solar energy generation was explained by David Shaffer in a recent Star Tribune article and by Bob Shaw in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Their articles work as a primer for interested people for whom solar energy development also introduces new applied technology terminology, such as solar gardens, leaf and leaves, and the larger collection of solar panels called arrays.

From an economic viewpoint, however, the current spark of solar energy development does show a marriage of increasingly popular objectives with enlightened public policy. A 2013 Minnesota law makes this development possible, and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recently rationalized how solar energy can be valued and priced.

At Gaylord, the sun will do most of the heavy work after construction so it won’t be a big jobs producer, said city administrator Kevin McCann. But, he said, the city will be a subscriber and will benefit over time from lower energy costs. Moreover, it will be an incentive for companies to locate and expand at Gaylord.

Minnesota-made products, technology

From another angle, solar development is economic development because MNCS is using Minnesota made products and technology “when possible.” The solar collecting panels, for instance, are made in Bloomington.

Living wages are being paid, and local products are intentionally used. “We aren’t in the ‘race to the bottom.’ We aren’t going after products where we could get them the cheapest,” said MNCS’ Wakely.

All this spills over with growth in a technology-based new industry. In March this year, the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) and Midwest Renewable Energy Association held a solar conference at the University of St. Thomas that acknowledged both the rapid growth of solar in Minnesota and the catching up work still needed.

They noted in materials for the conference that Minnesota had 864 solar jobs in 2013, a 72 percent increase from the previous year. But that ranked Minnesota 31st among states and the District of Columbia.

Another quantum leap in solar employment can be expected this year based on the projects described by Shaffer and Shaw that are in various stages of planning and development around the state.

Appealing to certain entrepreneurs

On another bright note, solar energy development appeals to entrepreneurs and investors who have social goals combining economic and environmental sustainability, said Wakely. That is evident with the partnership MNCS has with social investor Mangold and his wife King, at Gaylord. King is the founding dean of St. Catherine University’s School of Business and Leadership.

The management team at Minnesota Community Solar also fit that mold. They include founder Dustin Denison who worked in mechanical and electrical trades before starting Applied Energy Innovations, a Minneapolis-based solar installation company. Others include various environmental activists, like Wakely and subscription manager Dana Hallstrom, and researchers and designers such as co-founder Peter Teigland and Steve Coleman.

Earlier this year, MNCS teamed with Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis to place a community solar garden atop the congregation’s education building – the first such project with a faith-based organization.

The convergence of interests with clean technology attracts attention. The Minnesota High Tech Association recently nominated Minnesota Community Solar for its annual Tekne Energy Award along with Ecolab, of St. Paul; and RA Knowledge, of Minneapolis. In all, the high tech association makes 12 different awards among 36 innovative nominees.

Nominated companies include huge, well-established companies with innovative products such as 3M, of Maplewood, on down to start-ups of less than three years that include Gravie, Minneapolis; NimbeLink, Plymouth, and NxThera, Maple Grove.

Presentation of the Tekne Awards will be made Nov.13 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Lee Egerstrom is an Economic Development Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul; this commentary originally appeared on its website. Egerstrom worked for 36 years as a business journalist and as a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and its former parent company, Knight Ridder Newspapers. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/24/2014 - 11:04 am.

    Good Things ARE Happening!

    We need more and better of such alternative energy efforts.

    We also need massive research into storage technologies and facilities so that we can use intermittent energy sources – wind, solar, tidal, etc.,…

    for ALL our energy needs.

    Meanwhile, a side ripple that is already becoming a tidal wave in some coal mining areas, is what we do with all those who earn their living in the dinosaur energy industries,…

    when we no longer need ANY of them to do that work.

    When we have harnessed energy sources that are, with the exception of occasional new construction and maintenance, FREE, how do we provide for the income and well being of all those folks that no longer need to work?

    If we simply continue to toss them to the wolves of our current “cheapest possible labor,” “free market” economy we will massively damage them and our society in ways that might finally make us realize that having a society that is so FAR out of economic balance,…

    is as dangerous to all of our lives and well being as having the natural world be thrown so far out of balance as it currently is by our energy and industrial processes.

    Massive misery and deep destruction can only follow on the heels of such mistaken courses of action.

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