Minnesota's national ranking for solar energy capacity has climbed significantly after a flurry of new projects have come online.

During the first quarter, the state ranked fourth nationally for new solar power installations compared with the same period a year ago, according to data released Thursday by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group.

The state added 140 megawatts of solar power capacity in the quarter, continuing a growth spurt that started in last year's fourth quarter and reflects long-planned developments being switched on.

A megawatt is 1 million watts, and Minnesota had solar projects up and running by the end of March with 431.6 megawatts of cumulative production capacity, ranking it 16th in the nation for total capacity, according to SEIA. Minnesota also was 16th at the end of last year, a big improvement over its ranking of 29th at the beginning of 2016.

"Minnesota is clearly a leader in the Midwest," said Sean Gallagher, SEIA's vice president for state affairs. The Midwest, though, is a relative laggard compared to much of the country.

California is by far the nation's solar energy leader with 18,963 megawatts of cumulative production capacity. North Carolina and Arizona are respectively next, each with more than 3,100 megawatts. Nevada and New Jersey round out the top five, each with more than 2,100 megawatts.

To put Minnesota's 431.6 megawatts of solar power in perspective, Xcel Energy's nuclear plant in Monticello has a 617-megawatt production capacity. That comparison comes with a caveat: Solar energy is variable since the sun is not always shining.

About two-tenths of 1 percent of Minnesota's energy production comes from solar power, compared with around 1 percent nationally. Still, solar has taken a great leap forward in Minnesota, particularly with the advent of three large "utility" scale projects, which provide power to Minneapolis-based Xcel.

Late last year, Xcel turned on the 100-megawatt North Star project, which features 440,000 solar panels covering more than 1,000 acres in Chisago County — by far the largest sun power site in the state. Since late 2016, most of the Aurora Solar project — 100 megawatts of power spread over 16 sites — has come online. Plus, a 62-megawatt installation in Marshall began production earlier this year.

Such utility-scale projects are the primary drivers of capacity growth for U.S. solar.

In Minnesota, the state's Community Solar Garden program has started kicking in after much delay, with 74 megawatts of power switched on by early May. It's aimed at offering solar power to residents and business owners who don't want the expense and complication of building their own rooftop solar arrays.

"The community solar pipeline is finally coming in," Gallagher said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003