Minnesota's solar energy capacity rose 80 percent during 2017's first three months, the second consecutive quarter of leapfrog growth as several major solar arrays were switched on.
The state had 447 megawatts of solar production capacity at the end of the first quarter, a far cry from 37 megawatts at the end of 2015, according to data released Friday by the Minnesota Department of Commerce. A megawatt is 1 million watts, enough electricity to power 140 homes.
Altogether, Minnesota's solar arrays have the capacity to crank out about as much power as one of Xcel Energy's larger natural gas-fired plants — at least when it's sunny.
Most of the state's solar generation has come online in the past six months, with about 200 megawatts added in the first quarter.
"We are enjoying dramatic growth in solar power here in Minnesota," Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said at a news conference Friday on the roof of Schneiderman's furniture store in Plymouth, topped with a solar array.
The growth has been across the board, Rothman noted, from large-scale projects built for Xcel to smaller solar arrays that are dedicated to particular residential and corporate consumers.
Solar power deployments have accelerated as equipment costs have fallen and federal investment tax credits have been renewed. Still, solar makes up less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in Minnesota, and while it's emission-free, it's more costly than electricity made from wind and fossil fuels.
Last year, Xcel flipped the switch on the 100-megawatt North Star project with 440,000 solar panels covering more than 1,000 acres in Chisago County — by far the largest solar energy site in the state.
Over the past six months, much of the Aurora Solar project — 100 megawatts spread over 16 sites — also has come online. Aurora, owned by Enel Green Power North America, is supplying power to Xcel under a long-term contract.
A third "utility-scale" solar project providing power to Xcel — in Marshall, Minn., and owned by NextEra Energy — came online this year. It has a 62-megawatt capacity.
Minnesota's Community Solar Garden program over the past few months also has started producing a significant amount of power — 74 megawatts spread across 22 sites. The much-delayed solar garden program was created in 2013 by the state Legislature. It's aimed at offering solar power to residents and business owners who don't want the expense and complications of building their own solar arrays.
The "gardens," which are no larger than 5 megawatts, are built and run by independent solar companies and connect into Xcel's grid. Xcel administers the program.
The company said Friday that new community solar gardens should add another 325 megawatts of generating capacity by the end of 2017. That would account for most of the expected growth in Minnesota solar power for the rest of the year.
Minnesota has about 12 megawatts of residential rooftop solar capacity, and 28 megawatts of commercial solar generation like the projects atop Schneiderman's stores in Plymouth, Woodbury and Duluth. Each one can generate 60 kilowatts.
Schneiderman's solar arrays were partly financed by the state's Made in Minnesota program, which is administered by the Commerce Department. The program, created by the Legislature, covers about 40 percent of a solar installation's costs by giving homeowners and businesses a rebate for power they produce over 10 years. To get the rebate, solar panels assembled in Minnesota must be used.
Made in Minnesota has been a popular program, with the Commerce Department fielding more applications than it can fulfill. "It's been very important to kick-start" for solar, Rothman said.
But pending legislation would end the program, which doles out about $15 million annually. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and an influential legislator on energy issues, has called Made in Minnesota "super expensive" and a "boondoggle."