Power surge in Minnesota's solar industry

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2014 - 5:55 PM

The pace of solar power development in the state is expected to jump over the next two years as big utilities bring new capacity onto the grid.

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Dave Willard of Forest Lake is a Connexus Energy customer who invested $950 to purchase the output of one solar panel on the cooperative utility’s recently completed community solar array at its headquarters in Ramsey, Minn. He said his house is too shaded for rooftop solar panels.

Photo: DAVID BREWSTER • dbrewster@startribune.com,

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Minnesota’s solar power industry is in a growth spurt that’s about to accelerate.

The industry, once focused largely on installing solar photovoltaic panels for homes, businesses and government, now is seeing a surge in investment by electric utilities.

Cooperative power companies, especially Great River Energy in Maple Grove, are building more than 20 solar projects this year and next, including the state’s largest community solar garden in Ramsey, Minn.

Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, also is increasing solar investment, likely spurring statewide growth in new solar capacity that far outpaces last year’s 55 percent gain.

“The potential for growth is many multiples higher,” said Paul Spencer, founder and CEO of Clean Energy Collective, a Boulder, Colo.-based for-profit company that is the largest U.S. developer of community solar projects, including the first one in Minnesota.

Sparking the surge is a 2013 state law requiring investor-owned utilities to get 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar by 2020.

At TruNorth Solar, Marty Morud said his business expanded fivefold in the past year, thanks largely to co-op projects. He now has two crews installing solar panels.

“People are asking, ‘Why are you so happy?’ It’s because I am installing solar — for a utility,” said Morud, president of the Edina-based company.

Bigger solar

Solar arrays also are getting bigger.

The year-old solar array in Slayton, Minn., the size of eight football fields, could soon lose its mantle as Minnesota’s largest. Its output is 2 megawatts, or 2 million watts.

Now, projects five times that size are planned. One project proposed by Geronimo Energy in Chisago County is rated at 50 megawatts, enough to power about 6,000 homes and an output equivalent to a small natural gas power plant.

Minneapolis-based Xcel is considering several “utility-scale” projects whose size offers economies of scale.

“The prices appear to be competitive,” said Dave Sparby, Xcel’s chief executive for the Minnesota region.

Overall, Xcel is considering 200 megawatts of utility scale projects, half of it from Geronimo Energy’s plan to place large solar arrays at 20 locations across the state. State regulators still must sign off on these large projects.

Betsy Engelking, vice president for development at Edina-based Geronimo, said Minnesota also changed how it rewards large commercial and industrial customers for rooftop solar arrays.

“You are going to see an explosion of corporate and industrial customers,” she said in an interview.

Solar boom at co-ops

Electric co-ops are part of the solar expansion, often because customers want it.

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  • Foreman James Drummond, left, and installer Anthony Acosta of TruNorth Solar lifted a solar panel into place at a Dakota Electric Association solar array constructed in Farmington. The project is one of more than 20 solar arrays being built across the state.

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