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Mike Rothman (left) and Minh Le (right)

Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman (left) and Minh Le from the U.S. Department of Energy set the tone for the Solar Powering Minnesota Conference on March 7. Both speakers said the groundwork has been laid for solar growth in Minnesota, with Rothman providing opening remarks and Le delivering a keynote address. (Photo by Don Breneman)

Solar Powering Minnesota Conference: State poised for solar growth

The stage is set for massive solar energy growth in Minnesota. That message was reinforced and well received on March 7 as an overflow crowd of 350 attended the Solar Powering Minnesota Conference at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul.

“Here comes the sun,” said Mike Rothman, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, in conference opening remarks. “Minnesota is ready for solar growth, and why not Minnesota? We can be a leader in solar.”

Minh Le, in his morning keynote, echoed Rothman’s remarks. Minnesota is developing the strong solar infrastructure—the programs, policies, and workforce—needed to boost its solar market, said Le, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. Favorable trends for increasing solar capacity—decreased cost to install solar, improved policies, increased solar jobs, and cuts to soft costs—are emerging in Minnesota.

The conference attracted many of those who are responsible for laying the groundwork for solar growth—policymakers, utility leaders, lenders, solar industry leaders, developers and contractors, government officials, workforce development professionals, and more. Bill Grant, Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Commerce, provided an overview of 2013 energy policy (pdf) that has bolstered solar in Minnesota.

State of solar development in Minnesota

Stacy Miller, solar specialist for the Division of Energy Resources, presented a state of solar in Minnesota overview at the conference. While Minnesota currently ranks in the middle of states for solar electric capacity, she painted a bright picture for Minnesota’s solar future. She was quick to point out how Minnesota achieved the second highest decrease in cost to install a solar electric system in 2013 among all states, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The cost to install solar electric systems decreased 40 percent in Minnesota from 2012 to 2013 and 41 percent in Wisconsin from 2012 to 2013.

Improved policies pave way for solar

Miller said the deployment of solar in states is largely policy driven, as evidenced by the top 10 states for cumulative solar capacity in the nation—California, Arizona, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Georgia, Texas, New York, and Colorado. “Key policies include net metering of 1 MW or more, a solar electricity standard, performance-based incentives, and third-party ownership, and now Minnesota has three of these.”

The cornerstone for future deployment is the solar electricity standard, which by state law requires Minnesota investor-owned utilities to obtain 1.5 percent of retail electricity sales from solar electricity by the end of 2020. Minnesota also adopted a goal of obtaining 10 percent of the entire state’s retail electricity sales from solar by 2030.

Today Minnesota has about 14 MW of solar electric capacity; by 2020 it will have 400 MW to meet the standard, nearly a 30-fold increase, said Miller. Today, Minnesota has about 1,000 residential solar systems; by 2020, that total will increase to more than 4,000. Today, Minnesota has three community solar gardens with 0.1 MW of capacity; in 2020, there could be 300 with a combined 180 MW of capacity depending on consumer interest.

Miller added that solar thermal holds great promise in Minnesota. Solar heating and cooling mitigates the cost and volatility of delivered fuels and conventional resources, she said. “The Value of Solar Heating and Cooling in Minnesota” (pdf) report, released in January, assesses the potential of solar thermal in Minnesota.

Many of the conference presentations, including Miller’s “Solar in Minnesota” (pdf), are available for downloading.

The conference was presented by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association and Minnesota Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). Conference partners included the University of St. Thomas; Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources; Minnesota Renewable Energy Society; CR Planning; and the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association (MnSEIA).