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Greater Minnesota solar projects highlight utility plans for speeding up the green economy

Xcel Energy offered the most ambitious slate: $3 billion worth of projects that could generate as many as 5,000 jobs.
Xcel Energy
Xcel Energy offered the most ambitious slate: $3 billion worth of projects that could generate as many as 5,000 jobs.

When Minnesota’s largest utilities released plans for putting people to work during a sagging economy while also speeding up the state’s transition to green energy, solar energy topped two of the companies’ lists.

The June proposals by Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, which include solar projects at four sites in Greater Minnesota, came at the urging of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which had asked the big utilities it regulates to move up the completion dates of energy projects that were in the works.

The commission must now consider the plans, along with those put forward by other utilities, for approval. “It was nice to see that they gave us a lot to work with,” said Joseph Sullivan, the utilities commissioner who first floated the idea for sped-up projects in May. “They really stepped up.”

The announcements highlight the role that green-energy projects might play in a COVID-damaged economy, which gained further momentum in a jobs report released June 25 by a business-oriented energy group.

The study, issued by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, said that more than 11,000 workers in the green-energy sector in Minnesota have filed for unemployment benefits since the COVID pandemic began in March. The group defined such workers as those involved in energy efficiency, clean fuels and other areas. The report was based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Rural footprint

The proposals appeared in lengthy documents submitted to the MPUC in response to its request.

Xcel Energy offered the most ambitious slate: $3 billion worth of projects that could generate as many as 5,000 jobs. The centerpiece is a solar project at the company’s coal-fired Sherco Power Plant near Becker in central Minnesota’s Sherburne County. It could cost as much as $650 million and would provide enough energy to power 240,000 homes.

Christopher Clark
Christopher Clark
In an interview with MinnPost, Christopher Clark, Xcel’s president for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said it makes sense for the company to add solar power to the Sherco plant, which has shuttered some of its coal-burning capacity. “We thought it was a great fit for this opportunity that the (MPUC) has identified,” he said.

The company also proposes to spend $1 billion or more on upgrades to its wind farms or to possibly purchase additional wind energy.

Minnesota Power, in its submission, included solar projects at two existing locations – its Laskin Energy Center Park in Hoyt Lakes, on the Iron Range, and its Sylvan Hydro Station near Brainerd – and another at a site in Duluth. The company, which serves a swath of central and northeastern Minnesota, said the projects would cost an estimated $40 million and power at least 4,000 homes.

Bethany Owen, president and CEO of Allete, Minnesota Power’s parent company, said in a news release [PDF] that the solar arrays will help the company reach its goal of generating half of its energy through renewable sources by 2021. Minnesota Power already runs a 10-megawatt solar array at Camp Ripley, the Minnesota National Guard base near Little Falls.

Moving fast

The fast-moving developments in Minnesota’s utility industry illustrate the impact the COVID pandemic is having on the state’s green economy.

Bethany Owen
Bethany Owen
Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, in its jobs report, said green energy jobs, before the pandemic, had been growing 2.5 times faster than jobs in the overall economy. The 11,000 workers who applied for unemployment represent about 18 percent of the green-energy workforce, the organization said. Gregg Mast, the group’s executive director, said the agency believes “clean energy businesses are uniquely situated to help repower the economy.”

Xcel Energy had planned to have its new solar projects on its grid by 2026. Under its fresh plan, according to Clark, those projects could be ready by 2023 or even earlier – though that depends on a host of factors, including the timeliness of permits and the strength of equipment supply chains.

Amy Rutledge, a spokeswoman for Minnesota Power, said in an email that the company hopes for a quick turnaround from the MPUC. The company included nine letters of support from city and county officials in its filing with the agency.

Minnesota Power’s solar array at Camp Ripley.
Minnesota Power
Minnesota Power’s solar array at Camp Ripley.
“We certainly hope our projects will be approved as quickly as is possible and will work with the Commission to help ensure the process is efficient so we can expedite these projects and help get our communities on the road to economic recovery,” she said.

Sullivan, the commissioner, said in the next few weeks the MPUC will begin working on a timeline for reviewing the projects.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/30/2020 - 09:18 am.

    Better get Polymet up and running. These solar panels need copper and other minerals to work. Watch Michael Moore’s new documentary on renewables, he realizes the amount of copper needed to build the panels.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/30/2020 - 09:35 am.

      Michael Moore’s film (its not a documentary) is full of outright falsehoods.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 06/30/2020 - 11:23 am.

        Just like the entire green energy claims and climate change for that matter. Solar is a pipe dream that will never work on a large scale (mainly because it’s unreliable at best and the sun doesn’t shine all the time).

        The US is still in the past with this kind of thinking. If we want reliable, cheap, clean energy… we need to be going full speed ahead on liquid salt Thorium reactors. We have at least 500 years worth of known thorium deposits. The reactors are completely safe and have very little waste. They can burn up waste from conventional nuclear plants. And we can scale the reactors to size thus eliminating the grid was we know it. Reactors can be placed locally to serve much smaller areas thus eliminating many long transmission lines (vulnerable to an EMP). We could even use them for desalination plants, bio diesel plants etc where needed because it would be such cheap energy.

        Thorium is the future…solar and wind are the past and only viable on a small scale (or individual homes).

        • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/01/2020 - 08:06 am.

          You can put Thorium on the shelf with perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, hydrogen and all that other too-good-to-be-true. Thorium is one of those technologies that was 40 years out forty years ago, and will be 20 years out 20 years from now.

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 07/01/2020 - 02:54 pm.

            Not true. The US had a molten salt reactor at Oakridge in the 60s. It was scrapped because it couldn’t be used to make weapons grade materials. China and India are both working on MSRs.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 08:12 am.

          The idea that solar is unreliable because the sun doesn’t shine all the time reflects a profound misunderstanding of how solar power works. Obviously, the more sun you have the more efficient it will be, but solar by no means requires constant sun. You can predict with a high level of accuracy how much sun a location will get.

          Unlike solar, which is becoming cheaper and more efficient, and which is growing rapidly, Thorium energy is still theoretical, and has been held back by massive costs.

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 07/01/2020 - 02:58 pm.

            Solar is still extremely inefficient. There isn’t enough land for food and solar panels. With Solar and Wind, you always need a backup system in place which means you have to maintain 2 systems instead of one. If you add that cost into wind and solar, it’s off the charts expensive. Batteries are extremely inefficient in storing and expending energy as well.

            Neither will ever be able to supply a significant amount of power let alone be our main source of electricity.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 06/30/2020 - 03:23 pm.

        So Michael Moore is now full of lies? Do they use copper in solar panels? Do you use electricity to charge battery run cars? How do you dispose of solar panels when they don’t work (20-30 years) anymore? Moore was the darling of the Left until he did this documentary, what changed?

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 07:58 am.

          Yes. Michael Moore has always played fast and loose with the facts, but in this film he has given up any pretense of being truthful.

          Solar infrastructure does require those metals. But they can’t be mined in places that don’t pose an a huge threat to an important ecosystem.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/01/2020 - 08:13 am.

            Like most of what I have read in response to Moore’s film, that Vox piece is more like a hit piece, rather than being very informative or setting the record straight – like a lot of info in neoliberal Vox.

            A renewable society would be great, if we scale WAY down in energy usage. But that inconvenient fact will get you exiled from the renewable conversation, if you bring it up. And if you are Moore, it will get your character assassinated.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 10:18 am.

              As you say, there are a lot of pieces critical of Moore’s film, which again, is due to its collection of objective falsehoods. Calling out Moore’s dishonesty is not character assassination.

              And the idea that reducing energy use will get you exiled is pure nonsense and a demonstration of the problem with people like Moore. When you get your information from people who traffic in deliberate falsehoods, you end up believing that kind of nonsense.

          • Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/01/2020 - 12:43 pm.

            So it really isn’t about the planets health, it is about “not in my backyard”. Much easier to ruin someone else’s backyard I guess. You can have copper mined with a great amount of regulations here on the Range or unregulated somewhere else. I know your answer.

            • Submitted by BK Anderson on 07/02/2020 - 08:55 am.

              Yes, when the mining can be done in another (much more environmentally friendly) “backyard”, whose owner actually wants it! Just because mineral deposits exist doesn’t mean it is prudent (or necessary) to mine them. Not every job is prudent to “create”.

              And since you don’t really believe in the legitimacy or efficacy of government regulation, it is bad faith on your part, Joe, to tell environmentalists to rely entirely upon them, when (naturally fallible) regulation could result in absolutely irreversible contamination of a pristine (supposedly protected) wilderness.

    • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/30/2020 - 11:08 am.

      Trading one generation’s solar panels for 25 generations of heavy metals/sulphuric acid in northern Minnesota waters is the very worst of deals.

      And you know Michael Moore is on to something when both “sides” have come to call him a liar (but just about the things we don’t agree with).

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 08:21 am.

        Michael Moore is a liar because his film makes numerous objectively false claims. Because he misrepresents the truth about green energy much in the way oil and coal companies do.

        Both sides may call him a liar because his dishonest reporting used to be aimed at the right, and now its aimed at the left. But Moore is not on to anything other than his lying seems to have no ideological boundaries.

        • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/01/2020 - 10:01 am.

          Like I said, say anything that is inconvenient to any entrenched interest and you will get your character assassinated.

          Mostly what Moore is saying is, you don’t get to say the Renewables are like a 1/1 shift away from fossil fuels. a few thousand millennia of condensed sunlight is a vastly greater energy source then diffuse direct sunlight. Again, if we want to scale WAY back our energy usage, great. I am all for it. But I am a rare bird indeed…

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 10:21 am.

            You actually aren’t a rare bird at all. You are just getting your information from a liar. Someone who has created a false dichotomy.

    • Submitted by Scott Walters on 06/30/2020 - 01:58 pm.

      We’re far better off buying it from Chile. Their biggest mine is in the middle of the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. Yes, it has it’s own beauty, but no chance of catastrophic water pollution of massive fresh water resources. Why take the risk when there’s no need and no benefit to Minnesota?

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 07/01/2020 - 12:27 pm.

        Why? Because Joe isn’t really interested in a serious discussion of a critical issue like the nation’s energy future and looming destruction of the earth’s 11,000 year old stable climate–he’s more interested in making “gotcha” points which supposedly demonstrate that greatest of all lib’rul sins: hypocrisy! “If you really cared about the environment, you’d approve 10 Polymet mines!” Yup, flawlessly logical!

        Ditto Mr Barnes, with his spectral Thorium reactors, a hypothetical technology that would would come online (if ever) long after the climate tipping point had been passed and the natural climate effectively destroyed. (One might as well believe in the Tholian Web of Star Trek….)

        Leave aside the fact that the true leaders in energy, the Europeans, have already so substantially beefed up their solar capacity that they are running decades ahead of their CO2 reduction plans/goals. But as the German Foreign Minister said at some point, “But in our country we do not have people like these Koch Brothers…”

        Nor a reactionary “conservative” movement that is happy to cut off its nose to spite its face, as long as lib’ruls are “defeated”….

        • Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/01/2020 - 06:29 pm.

          Stable climate?? There have been ice ages, dust bowls and multiple other weather patterns that are anything but stable. All that happened before man ruined the climate. The EU uses solar power at a 4.9% of total power…. Not a very convincing percentage.

          • Submitted by BK Anderson on 07/02/2020 - 09:09 am.

            You do not understand climate.

            In climatological terms, the Earth’s climate has/had been “stable” since the the retreat of the last ice age 11,000 year ago. Your Medieval “mini-ice age” and Midwest dust bowl heat are largely regional blips in the record. The massive, unnatural increase of atmospheric CO2 caused by humans burning and releasing all the ancient carbon in fossil fuels has now created a new, man-made climate worldwide, which likely began about 1990, and certainly by 2000.

            Basically, everything frozen on Earth is now melting. That’s the man-made climate of the 21st Century.

            • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 07/02/2020 - 07:54 pm.

              Your entire comment is untrue. Man hasn’t put much CO2 in the air at all.. not compared to historical levels. The Earth once had 7,000 ppm CO2 … and life thrived. In the long term, we are near record low levels of CO2. If we get much lower (in the 150ppm range), life on this planet will cease to exist.

              As for temps, we’ve been in a downward trend since 1998. 2019 was about the 5th coldest year in the US on record going back to 1895. That’s because Solar Cycle 24 was very inactive and now Solar Cycle 25 is even less active. Dr Zarkhova’s predictions have come true so far.. her model is proven 97% accurate. Her research is showing we are in for a major cooling period for the next 30 to 50 years. A grand solar minimum, similar to the Maunder Minimum.

              • Submitted by BK Anderson on 07/03/2020 - 02:53 pm.

                A wonderful mixture of disinformation and nonsense, while also being totally irrelevant to the current interglacial period–as though the level of CO2 in the atmosphere when there were no polar ice caps millennia ago has much to tell us of where CO2 should be in 21st Century.

                As for your “fear” to “too little CO2!”, we are currently at levels 49% higher than those of the pre-Industrial era, so the idea that life was in danger at the levels that existed since the retreat of the last ice age is preposterous. Indeed, the record pace of the heat is heavily contributing to the ongoing 6th mega-extinction, so please don’t act like the friend of Life on Earth….

                Your statement about temps being on a “downward trend since 1998” makes clear you credit only rightwing nonsense on this issue, since no reputable climate scientist would say that is an accurate statement. Further, your citation to US data when the issue is global temps makes clear you are seeking either to mislead others or that you don’t understand the most basic aspect of the data. For the record, NOAA informs us that the last five years have been the hottest years on record, globally, and the last 10 years have had something like 8 or 9 of the hottest ever.

                The fact that we have had such record global temps during periods of less active solar cycles should terrify you, but doesn’t. As for your grand finale, no climate scientist on earth thinks “we in for a major cooling period for the next 30 to 50 years”, whatever the solar cycles may be.

  2. Submitted by William Duncan on 06/30/2020 - 11:13 am.

    Green energy sounds to me like the green revolution in the 60’s-70’s, industrial methods and finance applied to farming, which more than doubled the global population (overshoot), has wiped out biodiversity, created a plague of invasive species, and perpetually pollutes the land and water.

    Nothing particularly green nor necessarily renewable about “renewables”.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/01/2020 - 10:26 am.

      The only similarity is the word green. And the green revolution did not cause the population growth. It merely kept large numbers of people from starving to death.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/01/2020 - 04:54 pm.

        Hmmm….global population in 1960 was 3 billion. 2020 – nearly 8 billion. So you think commodity industrial grains had nothing to do with that?

        Try spending time in Senegal. Commodity grains were introduced there in the early 90’s. Now 50% of the population is under the age of 16, and 40-70% of the average persons diet is commodity rice coming from somewhere else in the world. That is merely a test case of what happened all over the world.

        Of course too, one could equally say that the growth in population was due to oil, but there are no industrial commodity grains to exponentially increase population without oil.

        Now that we are well past peak conventional oil (2005), those of us who pay arttention to such things recognize that debt far outpacing growth, income inequality, the collapse of biodiversity, Trump, the recent protests, the housing bubble we never really recovered from….all signs of a society stretched well beyond carrying capacity.

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 07/01/2020 - 12:33 pm.

      As sympathetic as I am to your views, WHD, I think you’re tangling up about 10 different issues there.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 07/01/2020 - 05:12 pm.

        With respect BK, I’ve made a study of the issues of ecology, economy and energy (the three E’s) ever since I got caught flat-footed in 2008. And let me assure you just as strongly, my views are vastly more accurate than they are popular, and they are about equally unpopular among Dems and Repubs. Unfortunately in this climate of mass disinformation, unpopular views like mine equals (insert pejorative).

  3. Submitted by Richard Owens on 06/30/2020 - 01:19 pm.

    We just had a 8 or 9 inch rainfall event across the east side of the northland, the kind that potentially overflows containment dams creating catastrophe, and still Joe thinks an acid containment pond emptied by reverse osmosis is okay in the St. Louis River watershed.

    In my opinion, it demonstrates a plain lack of concern for the wells, groundwater, lakes and streams at risk of acid mine leakage.

    After all the factual information we have about exposing sulfide ores to air and water, the science is CLEAR.

    As for Polymet, they have inherited a terrible reputation from Glencore– known for their harm to people and environmental messes around the world. Their poor management and ruin of natural lands is common knowledge.

    The MPUC was wise to encourage some major energy projects to beef up our infrastructure and close the Becker plant. Jobs up north don’t all have to be filthy dead ends.

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