Griffin Dooling's Blue Horizon Energy in Minnetonka now has 50 employees, up from one full-time and one part-time in 2012. The solar company is set to grow 50% to 60% this year alone, Dooling said. The growth should be sustained, he said, because of a 10-year extension of renewable energy investment tax credits included in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.
"This bill establishes a clear runway for businesses and consumers looking to deploy solar energy over the next decade," said Dooling, also president of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.
The new law also should add historic investment in underserved communities, expansion of related manufacturing in the United States and a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.
Dooling talked about the new law and challenges the solar industry faces in this wide-ranging interview edited for clarity and length.
Q: Will the new law help the Minnesota solar industry reach its goal of generating 10% of electricity by 2030?
A: That stability on the demand side is critical to allowing our industry to not only meet the immediate needs of projects today, but to plan for a long-term future rather than fire-fighting artificial incentive cliffs every few years. On the surface, stability might not be a very exciting concept when compared to some of the flashier parts of the Inflation Reduction Act, but it's going to be critical to expand solar's share of energy in Minnesota from about 3.5% today to 10%-plus by 2030.
Q: What is the driver for 2023 and beyond?
A: The second most impactful part of this bill is it makes new and existing incentive programs more flexible. For example: It allows commercial businesses new opportunities to use clean-energy tax credits, greatly streamlines the path for civic and nonprofit organizations to deploy solar and it provides increased incentives for specific low-income and energy-challenged communities.
For example, a few hours after the Inflation Reduction Act's passage, we were in a City Council meeting in Wayzata, pursuing a direct-purchase of solar equipment to maximize their financial savings. The new law allows civic entities to take a direct payment of the 30% investment tax credit rather than requiring a partnership with a third-party for-profit organization. This one change is estimated to quadruple the city's savings potential over the project's lifespan. We've seen similar circumstances on several other projects this week alone, including a large Iowa industrial facility and a Minnesota-based manufacturer.
Q: How fast has your business grown in revenue and employment over the last decade?
A: Over the last decade, our business has grown an average of 30% per year, which has begun to accelerate in recent years. Last year, we grew roughly 40%. This year, we are on track for 50% to 60% growth.
One of the most important things we've embarked on over the past 18 months is an extensive effort to build out the team. This has been a significant transition for me — from directly managing every employee to working with a team.
Q: What about employment in the Minnesota solar industry?
A: The industry includes roughly 4,000 individuals working on projects in the state. Projections made previous to the law called for that employment to grow 50% to 100% through 2030. We have not yet done updated projections. I would intuitively estimate that we will need workforce growth of 200% to 300% to meet the potential.
Q: The solar industry has been hamstrung recently by China issues, tariffs, chip shortages, etc. How do you grow with that overhang? Any evidence of an onshoring movement?
A: Overall, this challenge has to be managed through a combination of flexibility within today's supply chain while building a more resilient supply chain. The bill creates both demand-side and supply-side incentives for domestic manufacturing of solar components that will help to significantly accelerate and reinforce the domestic supply chain. Combined with the onshoring efforts supported by the earlier semiconductor Chips Act, the solar supply chain three to five years from now is going to have a much stronger domestic foundation.
Q: Is there anything else important to know about the solar industry in Minnesota?
A: Our utility interconnection process in Minnesota has become extremely congested and it's going to take real leadership by local politicians to help streamline the interconnection process [via] a combination of legislation and policy work in the next session. Xcel Energy hasn't made enough progress. (The state fined the utility for the slow connectivity.)
It's really important to put the state in a position to maximize its share of the trillions of dollars in private investment that the new law is going to unlock. Beyond that, we will need to prioritize and support local workforce development to grow the workforce of skilled tradespeople required to put these projects together.