Minnesota solar industry forecasts growth as capacity, consumption continuously climb - InForum | Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo news, weather and sports

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

Solar power accounted for 3.2% of Minnesota’s energy capacity in 2021. While it may not sound like much, the Minnesota Department of Commerce reports that number represents a 217% growth in solar power capacity from just five years ago. Led Street Light

Minnesota solar industry forecasts growth as capacity, consumption continuously climb - InForum | Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo news, weather and sports

Serving as executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Logan O’Grady said a combination of the state’s energy consumers, community initiatives and legislative policy will all lead to continued growth in the renewable energy’s 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 is already using it.

“If solar power wasn’t a feasible option we wouldn't see Minnesotans, communities, small businesses, family farms and large corporations making investments into solar,” O’Grady told Forum News Service.

He’s quick to point out that solar power is no longer just a single panel on a residential home, and has instead grown to help power entire commercial and industrial ventures.

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

Though just across the border in River Falls, Wisconsin, O’Grady also looks to Tattersall Distilling, which in January installed more than 1,000 solar panels to offset all energy consumption on its production facility.

In fact, entire cities can almost rely on solar.

In January 2019, the Minnetonka City Council kicked off an initiative to power city facilities by solar. According to the city’s website, all city buildings, street lights and water systems receive energy through community solar gardens. The city's public works department told Forum News Service that 74.8% of power consumed comes from solar, saving the city an estimated $12.5 million over a 25-year period and offsetting carbon emissions by an equivalent of removing 700 cars from the road each year.

Though spotting a solar panel on the roof of a home isn’t necessarily rare, not all properties are ideal for solar power. Positioning of trees, the directional bearing of structures or lack of flat, open areas can all play a role in determining if a property is fit for a solar array.

Community solar gardens, however, can solve that problem. Located off-site from the consumer, community solar gardens are expansive arrays of solar panels that customers can buy or lease the rights to solar power captured by the array.

The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERT), which operates across Minnesota, identifies 39 community solar gardens across the state, owned by a mix of cooperatives, municipalities and investors.

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

“Our first community solar garden went in in 2015. We started with a 50-panel array, and were able to sell that to members pretty quickly,” said Ryan Rooney, energy services and business development manager of REA. “In 2016, we decided to expand that, adding 100 panels.”

Rooney explained that in REA’s garden, subscribers will purchase the rights to a solar panel and be entitled to the energy that panel can capture across its 20-year lifespan. Any energy derived from the solar panels is credited to the consumer’s account.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of electricity in Minnesota was 16 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in November. Rooney said that after subtracting any credits from solar power captured from the cost of purchasing the rights, solar power would cost about 10 cents per kWh. REA subscribers save an estimated $5 per panel per month — but multiple panels could see those savings could climb to hundreds or thousands of dollars annually.

“The biggest piece is that it allows [subscribers] to avoid the hassle of maintenance and performance monitoring for an [at-home] array,” Rooney said. “It also gives you the ability to transfer. If you purchase the output for the panels, you can sell it to the new owner if you move, or you can transfer it to a new account or even gift it to others. It’s the flexibility to do what you want with it in the future.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, solar panels in Minnesota produced enough energy in 2021 to fully power approximately 200,000 households.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce’s annual solar report shows solar power is becoming a broader energy choice in nearly all aspects. O’Grady believes those increases will be furthered by some past and future legislative initiatives.

It all started when the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 was signed into Minnesota law by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. O’Grady said the legislation was the first time specific goals of reducing carbon emissions had been laid out in the state, and that utilities’ action plans helped boost the solar industry.

The Next Generation Energy Act called for an emissions reduction in the state by 30% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050. But Minnesota did not meet its 2015 goal of 15% reduction, and is not on track to meet the 2025 goal, according to a state agency.

In 2019, Gov. Tim Walz signed the Climate Change Executive Order, emphasizing the need for cooperation between state agencies to tackle climate change and drive innovative policies. It also created the Climate Change Subcabinet and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change, which work together to identify policies and strategies to right the carbon emission reduction trends.

Plenty of other state and federal programs have also pushed carbon emission reductions and increased funding for the industry.

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

“We weren't prepared for the results of the election. For whatever reason, Republicans tend to be less friendly toward solar, and it shouldn't be that way, because we’re talking jobs, economic development and small businesses,” he said. “Some legislators tend to like their utilities, because they provide their constituents with electricity. Some of the greater Minnesota legislators have co-ops instead of investor-owned utilities. … You’d be shocked at how many legislators sit in committee and say ‘this is a complete fraud, solar doesn’t work in Minnesota.’”

Despite that, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party controlling the legislative and executive branch of state government, O’Grady looks forward to certain legislation that would increase funding and capabilities for solar energy to power more public buildings and school districts across the state. Bills addressing those topics are expected to see legislative debate in the state’s upcoming legislative session.

“I think the future of solar in Minnesota can be described in one word, and that’s growth,” O’Grady summarized. “It’s going to be an exciting year to see what other great public policy is coming out, and it’s all pointing toward growth — and that’s great news for Minnesota because it means more businesses here and more workers.”

Minnesota solar industry forecasts growth as capacity, consumption continuously climb - InForum | Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo news, weather and sports

Solar Panel Garden Lights O’Grady said that anyone who might be skeptical of solar power should contact three different companies to evaluate whether solar power might be beneficial to them. A list of resources on solar power in Minnesota can be found on the websites of the Minnesota SEIA, CERT or the state’s Department of Commerce.