Imagine gliding along University Av. in a light rail car powered by solar-generated electricity, and spotting solar energy panels on nearly every rooftop you pass. Better still, imagine that one of the buildings outside your window is a manufacturing site for solar panels, employing scores or maybe hundreds of workers. 

That's the vision described Thursday by legislators, Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors, alternative energy advocates and Xcel Energy officials on the sun-drenched steps of the state Capitol. They were hailing the 2009 Legislature's enactment of a $33.4 million package of financial incentives and policy changes aimed at spurring solar energy development in Minnesota.

Minnesota's history with wind energy shows that legislative action can do a lot to change the mix of energy sources in a state, noted state Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Senate's environment and energy funding panel. Minnesota is now the leading wind-energy producing state in the nation, thanks to requirements set by the 1994 Legislature as part of an agreement over waste storage at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant. 

"Today we're kicking off the solar energy revolution," Anderson said. But unlike the 1994 approach, which mandated action by a power company, the 2009 solar bill relies on incentives for homeowners, businesses and local governments to install solar collectors and storage systems.The incentives are expected to be available to consumers beginning in 2010, said Xcel Energy spokeswoman Mary Sandok. 

The money the Legislature directed to solar energy is a portion of Minnesota's allotment of federal economic stimulus money. That means that a similar amount may not be available in 2011 and beyond -- and that should make 2010 a very good year to go solar.