MANKATO — Solar arrays that would dwarf any currently existing in Minnesota could be under construction this year near Waseca and Eagle Lake if the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission adopts the recommendation an administrative law judge released this week.
The PUC assigned administrative law judge Eric Lipman to analyze five proposals for providing the additional power Xcel Energy is expected to need by the end of the decade, and Lipman deemed Geronimo Energy's solar-power plan superior to natural-gas based proposals, including one that would have nearly doubled the size of Mankato's Calpine power plant.
"It's a significant decision because, No. 1, it's the largest solar project ever proposed in Minnesota," said Betsy Engelking, vice president of Edina-based Geronimo.
But even more striking is that Lipman concluded that the solar project compared favorably on economic terms with fossil-fuel-powered electrical generation — not just on environmental factors.
Part of the reason is that the additional power for Xcel is needed for peak demand times, and those peak times are typically when air conditioning is cranked up the highest. So the energy from the solar arrays will be required most on hot sunny days, when they're capable of producing the most.
Katy Wortel, a former Blue Earth County commissioner and current member of the Region Nine Renewable Energy Task Force, said she's long believed that renewable energy was economically competitive when the externalized cost of fossil fuels — particularly pollution and greenhouse gas emissions — are factored in. To see solar win even when those uncounted costs aren't included demonstrates the declining expense of solar panels.
"I'm really pleased that cleaner proposals can compete," Wortel said. "That really signifies that it's come down in price."
Wortel also likes that the solar arrays are spread across the southern half of Minnesota, increasing reliability and reducing the energy lost when transporting it great distances on transmission lines from a single generation plant.