Between a federal grant and the work to build awareness about solar energy in our state, you might start seeing some changes to rooftops in Minnesota.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes is ripe for change, according to a new report jointly commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources; the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Xcel Energy and Fresh Energy, an advocacy group that works to build awareness about renewable energy.
That report, "Market Transformation Pathways for Grid-Connected Rooftop Solar PV in Minnesota," shows Minnesota lagging behind similar states when it comes to solar energy production. But new programs and laws might help us shine a little brighter.
"Perceptions about solar energy have changed," said Ross Abbey, one of the report authors and a policy associate at Fresh Energy. "Right now, we have lots of players all pushing in the same direction." Those players, he said, include everyone from the U.S. Department of Energy to grassroots organizations trying to change our energy production.
One of the biggest changes, Abbey said, is the cost of solar energy. "The typical homeowner might be looking at $20,000 to $40,000," Abbey said. "That's like a nice family sedan. Unfortunately, there aren't many finance options." That big initial down payment is one major hurdle that has kept Minnesotans from investing in solar photo voltaic systems.
According to the report, Minnesota has 13 megawatts of solar electricity production potential installed. Meanwhile Colorado, which has a similar population, has 270 megawatts. And New Jersey, which gets roughly the same amount of sunlight as Minnesota, has more than 1,000 megawatts.
Tony Benson, of Rochester Public Utilities, said there are currently 29 solar customers — including both residential and commercial customers — in the RPU coverage area with a production capacity of 348 kilowatts, or roughly one-third of a megawatt. And all of those RPU customers are hooked up to the grid and selling surplus electricity back to the utility.
Over the last few years, RPU has seen an increased interest in solar electricity from its customers, Benson said. That interest has been driven by the rebates and tax-incentive programs available and the lower initial start-up costs. "There's also been more interest in renewable energy and interest in selling that energy back to the utility," Benson said.
Another factor, Abbey said, is an initiative in Minnesota to give full value to solar energy production so residents and companies that sell back their energy to utilities can earn a bigger return on their investment. "The utility has to fully compensate the customer on the full value of that production," Abbey said.
This means not just the price per kilowatt, but also how the very nature of solar electricity production reduces stresses on a utility's overall system. That includes not just the power plant but the transmission grid as well. Since solar production occurs at the site of where that power is used — and often occurs during peak consumption times — it eases the stress on the local utility structure.
That total cost, Abbey said, can be a little hard to quantify, but if the state can more accurately compensate private or commercial solar electricity producers, it would provide one more incentive to increase the state's overall production of this renewable energy source.
Brian Todd is a Rochester freelance writer.