Solar pioneer Ralph Jacobson recently pitched commercial real estate folks at a briefing-and-beer event that cost about $4,000 at Minneapolis’ Surly Brewery.

That’s close to the $5,000 per year Jacobs paid himself annually for the first decade after launching Innovative Power Systems in 1991.

“We’ve done it four times, and it’s more than paid for itself,” said Jacobson of the Surly events. “Commercial real estate folks tell us that owners see solar as a way to increase income” from their building roofs or a few acres of idle property.

Jacobson, a materials scientist out of the University of Minnesota, used to supplement his modest income from his solar venture by working at food co-ops and orchards, building projects, performing energy audits and whatever else was needed to keep the business afloat.

“I’m also grateful for my wife’s [nursing] salary,” quipped Jacobson, a St. Paul native and the first president of the state solar industry association a decade ago.

Times have changed in the rising Minnesota solar trade.

Jacobson is majority owner of what’s now called IPS Solar of Roseville, which has grown from seven employees in 2013 to 45 full-time employees and contractors. IPS posted record revenue of $32 million last year, thanks partly to a 2013 state law that has ignited decentralized solar power projects.

Jacobson, 65, has raised his pay to $150,000 — still less than his top salespeople — which is plenty for a man who lives simply and drives a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius.

IPS, named last year as one of Minnesota’s fastest-growing companies by Inc. Magazine, employs hundreds of electrical workers annually and has completed more than 40 megawatts of solar projects in the Upper Midwest, with another 20 megawatts under construction and 50 megawatts scheduled.

Its primary customers are businesses, schools, nonprofits and local governments.

Minnesota’s community solar garden program grew sixfold in 2017, adding enough electricity last year alone to power about 32,000 homes.

The state-mandated solar garden program, which covers Xcel Energy’s Minnesota territory, has 58 projects online, up from about 10 a year ago. They produce up to 211 megawatts of electricity up from just 35 megawatts at the end of 2016. (One megawatt can power about 200 homes.) Xcel administers the community solar program, aimed at residential and commercial users who want to invest in solar without setting up their own rooftop solar arrays. Instead, they subscribe to solar gardens, larger arrays that are developed and run by independent companies that connect to Xcel’s grid.

The program got off to a slow start but now is soaring, with IPS Solar enjoying a slice of the growth.

Ed Eichten, a farmer, bison rancher, and meat-and-cheese processor in Chisago Lakes, north of the Twin Cities, installed a solar system atop his processing plant in 2012 that clipped more than a quarter from his $1,600-a-month electrical bill. It cost him and his co-owner sister about $40,000, before federal tax incentives that return 30 percent of the cost in the form of a tax credit, and permit-accelerated depreciation on the balance.

In 2016, Eichten, 66, leased 22 acres of marginal land to IPS to develop a community solar garden for $8 million that provides enough juice to power an Ecumen senior residence in Chisago Lakes, the local school district and more.

“It works,” Eichten said. “Every day. Whether cloudy or sunny. It’s the ultraviolet rays that power the thing, less in the short days of winter. … I make twice as much off that land as I would farming it. It’s renewable energy. And I’m not polluting.”

Xcel in December forecast another 69 community-solar projects, totaling 240 megawatts of generation capacity, would be switched on in 2018. Xcel’s largest natural-gas and coal-fired plants can produce 530 and 680 megawatts, respectively. Solar is heading toward 2 percent of energy generation in Minnesota

Last year, Minnesota ranked 16th among states in installed solar capacity, up from 31st a year earlier, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

Moreover, renewable energy has moved into second place as Minnesota’s largest source of electricity generation, nudging out nuclear power but still trailing coal, according to a March report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Meanwhile, the cost of wind energy in Minnesota — even without tax subsidies — now appears lower than electricity produced from natural gas or coal, a leading contributor to pollution, and the severe weather that scientists say has cost tens of billions of dollars annually in global storm and drought damage. Solar is more expensive, but dropping thanks to scale.

President Donald Trump, a climate-science skeptic and no friend of jobs-producing green energy, this year imposed a 30 percent tariff on foreign built solar cells.

Eric Pasi, chief development officer of IPS, said IPS hedged by advance-ordering arrays in anticipation of Trump’s order.

IPS in 2018 may not exceed 2017’s blistering growth. But there’s no switching off solar or wind, as industry invests in efficient battery storage, and businesses and consumers embrace greener, cleaner power while costs continue to decline.

Pasi, 35, took a risk joining a struggling solar firm a decade ago, just out of the University of Minnesota business school.

“The risk is starting to pay off,” said Pasi, a minority owner in IPS. “The sky is the limit. The advent of energy storage will allow higher levels of renewables. We’ll continue to see a shift from coal and nuclear to wind and solar.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.