Minnesota’s solar energy boom actually began not with the sun, but with wind. Way back in 1994, the state outlined a plan to harness the howling winds that rake western Minnesota’s Buffalo Ridge as part of a deal with the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy. In return for approval of a proposal to dispose of nuclear waste, the company agreed to invest in wind power, or so the story goes.
“That initial project actually laid the foundation for Minnesota’s success on clean energy,” says Matt Privratsky, head of public affairs for Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy. Since Minnesota doesn’t have coal or oil, companies there capitalized on the resources it does have plenty of: wind and sun.
“No one between California and Denmark had built a wind farm, basically, so Minnesota companies had to learn how,” says Privratsky. Today, the state gets 25 percent of its energy from renewables and produces more wind-generated power than all but five other states. Now its solar capacity is surging.
Just this month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that renewables have become Minnesota’s second-largest source of electricity, an example of what a state can accomplish if legislators lend their support. When Clean Edge, a research and advisory firm that focuses on renewable energy, published its annual U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index last year, Minnesota ranked in the top 10 states, thanks to the amount of venture capital investment it attracted for renewable energy development, as well as its role as a clean energy policy leader.
That’s partially due to the state’s renewable energy mandate. In 2007, soon after An Inconvenient Truth came out in theaters, Privratsky’s group and other renewable energy supporters helped usher legislation through the state house that required Minnesota to source 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025. In 2013, Fresh Energy pushed lawmakers to go even further and mandate an additional 1.5 percent of energy from solar power by 2020.
Debating the first of the measures took lawmakers less time than it took to designate the honeycrisp apple as the state fruit, says Privratsky.
At first the solar requirement seemed overly ambitious, as developers and consumers struggled to build and harvest energy from solar arrays. But after a bumpy couple of years, the state’s fledgling industry took flight: Solar energy capacity increased by more than 80 percent in 2017, due mostly to a new solar garden program that allows consumers to purchase energy without putting arrays on their houses. There are now 58 such projects, compared with 10 in operation a year ago.
These projects may also provide valuable intel on how to promote agriculture near solar panels. In Mankato, a city southwest of Minneapolis, Enel Green Power is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to study how various crops grow beneath and adjacent to arrays.
It’s an aspect of solar installation that scientists haven’t looked into until now.
And what the researchers learn could help not just Minnesota, but states across the country that want to pair agriculture with solar energy, says Jordan Macknick, an energy and environmental analyst with NREL. The state is also the first in the nation to create a “pollinator friendly” certification for its solar projects.
As investment in wind and solar ramps up and the price of renewable energy becomes increasingly competitive (even without subsidies), Privratsky is optimistic that solar will continue to grow in Minnesota, just as the wind industry did before it―and that the rest of the country is paying attention. “I think we can serve as an example,” he says. “When you put a stake in the ground, you can create an entire market for clean energy.”
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