With state legislation passed this week, the Prairie Island Indian Community will get $46 million for a first-in-Minnesota clean-energy project, while a state-funded solar energy program will receive $15 million.
Those are about the only energy measures that made it through the Legislature this year in a session greatly disrupted by COVID-19. Broader carbon-free power and energy conservation proposals fell by the wayside.
But the Legislature approved $46 million over three years for a “net-zero” project for Prairie Island. The idea is that the total amount of energy consumed by the community near Red Wing would be no greater than the amount of renewable energy it generates.
Prairie Island would appear to be the first community in Minnesota to undertake such a project, and one of the first Indian communities in the country to do so.
“The net-zero legislation is a transformational opportunity for the Prairie Island Indian Community,” the band said in a statement.
The legislation, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Tim Walz, also allocated $10 million this year and $5 million in 2021 to Solar Rewards, which subsidizes small solar projects for Xcel Energy customers, particularly rooftop solar. Participants get a rebate on some of the power they produce.
“The bill should inject a little more consumer confidence in Solar Rewards,” said David Shaffer, head of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.
The money authorized for Solar Rewards and Prairie Island will come from the state’s renewable development account, which is funded by annual payments from Xcel. The fund was created by the Legislature in 1994 as a condition of allowing Xcel to store nuclear waste at its Prairie Island nuclear power plant.
The Indian community is located in the shadow of the nuclear plant.
“So much of our tribe’s recent history has been defined by the negative impact of energy production on our community, specifically nuclear power and nuclear waste,” the band said in a statement. “This legislation gives us the power to change that narrative and use energy production as a force for good.”
With the net-zero program, the community would use conservation measures to reduce energy consumption while deploying solar power for electricity generation, according to a Prairie Island presentation made to legislators.
Conservation initiatives would include installing more efficient lighting; upgrading heating, ventilation and cooling systems; and replacing the band’s auto fleet with electric vehicles and charging stations.
The power project would entail building solar arrays with a capacity of 5 megawatts, along with a microgrid — a self-contained distribution system that would include a battery for electricity storage.
The new solar installations would also power geothermal heating and cooling projects.