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In Minnesota, solar tops clean energy agenda

A solar array at a farm in central Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

A solar array at a farm in central Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

Correction appended

This could be the year major solar legislation sees the light of day in Minnesota.

A Democratic sweep in November has clean energy advocates optimistic about their causes following two years of legislative control by conservative Republicans.

The top priority on their agenda: a bill that would require Minnesota utilities to generate a tenth of their electricity from solar by the year 2030.

“Our top energy priority is the 10 percent solar standard,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of more than 75 environmental and conservation groups.

“We have a tremendous untapped resource, and we have the stars aligned to make major headway in ramping up our solar distributed generation here in the state,” Morse said.

The Minnesota Solar Energy Act [PDF] was first introduced in May 2011 by Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, and former Rep. Kate Knuth, D-New Brighton (Knuth did not seek re-election this term).

The act would supplement the state’s existing 25 percent by 2025 renewable electricity standard, which has primarily been met by large-scale wind farms.

It’s among a handful of ideas being discussed to give solar power the kind of policy boost that wind energy has received in the state for the last two decades.

“I know it’s a long process and you never know what’s going to come out of the meat grinder at the end of the day, but I will be very shocked if we don’t pass significant solar legislation this year,” said Ken Bradley, chair of the Solar Works for Minnesota coalition, which has led the charge for the 10-percent solar mandate.

Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News, is a member of both the MEP and the Solar Works for Minnesota coalition.

What’s in the bill

Bradley said the coalition of supporters backing the bill, especially among unions and businesses, is stronger than the one that helped push through the state’s 2007 renewable energy standard.

As it’s written, the solar standard would be phased in more slowly than the renewable standard. Utilities would be required to get just 2 percent of electricity from solar by 2022, with the remaining 8 percent coming between then and 2030.

The proposal calls for using a “buy all, sell all” model for utility integration. Solar system owners would sell all of the power they generate to their utility, which would credit the amount towards the customer’s electric bill.

The rate utilities pay for solar power would be set by the state’s energy office using a valuation formula laid out in the legislation. The price would attempt to reflect the value of the electricity as well as solar’s benefits to the grid and the environment.

The cost to residential ratepayers would be in the “tens of cents” per month for the first several years and increase to about $1 per month during later years, Bradley said — small, he argued, compared to the $9 monthly rate increase Xcel is asking for to cover nuclear repairs and upgrades.

‘What is the right policy mechanism?’

Bradley said he hasn’t received any indication of hesitation from legislative leaders about the bill.

“We’re definitely going to talk about [the solar standard],” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, who chairs the House Energy Policy committee.

But she also said she’s keeping an open mind about whether it is the best way to boost solar installations in the state.

“The question is: what is the right policy mechanism to incentivize growth in solar in Minnesota? It may be we do a 10 percent by 2030 mandate, and that may be the way we choose to stimulate the market and send a signal, but that might not be the most effective method right now.”

Solar lobbyists are hoping for a mix of policies and incentives that can put solar on a stable growth path in the state — which the industry is more in need of since Xcel Energy’s decision last year to end its solar rebate program after 2015.

“One major push will be to find an alternative source of funding for solar financing incentives in Minnesota,” said Bob Long, a lobbyist with Larkin Hoffman who represents two Minnesota solar manufacturers, tenKsolar and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance.

Long said one idea that’s been discussed in the weeks leading up to session was letting solar projects tap into financing from the state’s Renewable Development Fund, which has supported wind farms since the mid-1990s.

Other energy issues

Other parts of the legislature’s energy agenda are still coming together. Hortman and her counterpart in the Senate, John Marty, D-Roseville, said last week they were still meeting committee members and hadn’t seen specific legislation yet.

There’s talk about amending the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing law to extend the maximum payback time to 20 years from 10 years, which would help more industrial efficiency projects qualify.

Transit funding and electric vehicle infrastructure may come up in transportation committees. An energy storage standard may be introduced, Long said, though it doesn’t have the momentum of the solar standard bill.

Marty, chair of the Senate Environment and Energy committee, said he wants to review the legislature’s 2007 accomplishments, which included the renewable standard and an efficiency mandate, and have a discussion about what comes next.

“We’re trying to make our energy system sustainable for the long run, in a way that works for people,” Marty said. “I think now is the time when, in a very thoughtful matter, we take a serious look what’s going on, what we should be changing, and how we change it as aggressively as we can.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Melissa Hortman would be House author of the bill. Also, Rep. Hortman is from Brooklyn Park, not Brooklyn Center.

Comments (13)

There is a source of funding for uneconomic solar projects. IMO it’s the tax payer and the rate payer. Germany is the poster country for solar. They spend $10 billion+ annually on solar subsidies for a few percent of their electric power/

By Rolf Westgard on Jan 9, 2013

Where does the money for other types of energy come from?

By Ken Paulman on Jan 9, 2013

I am so excited to hear about positive and meaningful discussions about incentivizing the solar industry in MN. This makes economic and environmental sense in the long run seeing that MN has zero fossil fuel resources. As an aside, I think it’s funny to read the phrase “solar system” even when talking about solar thermal and PV systems…it always sounds like we’re going to be installing new solar systems in the universe :)

By Katie Jones on Jan 9, 2013

The issue is how much are ratepayers/taxpayers willing to pay for solar or other renewable power above what they’re paying now. I think the utilities assume that most ratepayers don’t want to pay anything additional, while most ratepayers are probably willing to pay a little bit more but not as much as the current price of solar. Germany’s citizens, however, seem more willing to pay for solar.

If your state’s goal is to deploy renewable energy (or reduce carbon emissions), then I don’t understand why solar is being singled out like this, when Minnesota has a much better wind resource than solar resource. Solar PV still needs a lot of R&D to bring the price down to a competitive level with other generation sources, whereas wind is pretty close. I think mandates wouldn’t bring about that rapid decline in price for solar, because utilities are going to use established technologies rather than innovative ones, which only brings incremental change (much like the RPS and the federal production tax credit are doing for wind).

It makes more sense to deploy solar in places where it’s more competitive (i.e. the Southwest) and wait for the prices to come down before significantly deploying it in the upper Midwest.

By Scott on Jan 9, 2013

The current governor of Ohio pushed very hard to get the current legislature to relax our RPS but he was not successful. Ohio has a 25% RPS that is required by 2025.

SB 315 amended the original standard to include waste heat recovery as renewable energy. I don’t agree with this. Having been a manufacturing/plant engineer for most of my career, if it makes Ohio Manufacturing more energy efficient and competitive so be it.

Coal, oil, natural gas and other energy sources have been subsidized for years. Lets take the subsidies away from everyone and then see what is the most economical.

The City of Cincinnati recently adopted an aggregation program for electricity. Seven utility companies bid on this contract. The winner is supplying 100% renewable energy to all Cincinnati residents and some small businesses for less than what they were paying Duke Energy for conventional energy. This program has been in effect for almost a year now. The average savings per resident will be approximately $135 per year. This is a 2 year contract so it will have another year to run.

The City of Chicago is trying to implement a similar program and they are using Cincinnati’s plan as a model.

By Jack Clock on Jan 9, 2013

If we didn’t have to import NG, coal and uranium. And if mercury, CO2, etc. emissions were reversible and we had a safe place to store coal ash and fission waste. And if they were going to last forever, and we had a lot of confidence that cold fusion or some other new undiscovered technology would be less costly economically and environmentally then maybe we could just ignore solar generation. 10 percent is not that much and is the only way to know it’s viability for future generations.
No question wind is cheaper at this point but both together can decrease the variability of renewable power and lessen the need for storage,backup or demand/response systems.

By Leo Klisch on Jan 9, 2013

The money for nuclear power comes from customers, satisfied by the low cost, always on, nuclear power. Reports from the EIA show solar is the most subsidized of all our fuel sources. To go from one tenth of one percent of our electric power to 10% would be a joke if it wasn’t so costly.

By Rolf Westgard on Jan 10, 2013

“Always on”? You mean like Fort Calhoun, which has been offline for a year and a half? Or Fermi 2, or Davis-Besse?

And are you trying to imply that nuclear power isn’t subsidized? Nuclear energy wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the government.

There are certainly valid arguments against solar power and for nuclear power. But let’s try to apply the same standards of evidence across the board, shall we?

By Ken Paulman on Jan 10, 2013

US nuclear capacity factor is at 91%. Wind is 29% and solar about 15%.
EIA report per boe nuclear subsidies are $!.78; solar is highest at $63.
There is a role for wind and solar, but they are expensive and variable supplements.

By Rolf Westgard on Jan 10, 2013

Do those subsidy figures include the cost for waste storage and decommissioning reactors?

By Ken Paulman on Jan 10, 2013

As far as I can tell, it’s yes for waste storage and no for decommissioning. The mill per kwh for geologic storage is ongoing and totals well over $20 billion. The water pool/cask program is covered by operations, and Yucca Mountain should be reopened.
Nuclear plants last as long or longer than other facilities, especially versus wind and solar. 72 of our 104 reactors have been approved for 60 years, and the NRC has a study going when applications to run 80 years start coming.

By Rolf Westgard on Jan 11, 2013

So why aren’t utilities building more nuclear plants?

By Ken Paulman on Jan 11, 2013

Does it figure in that the government is forced to insure nuclear plants because no one else in the world can or will? What’s that cost?

By Ty on Jan 11, 2013