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.
Twenty-five years after Wortel first got involved in the power-generation debate (as an opponent of a proposal to burn Twin Cities garbage at a Mankato power plant), she's pleased to see the renewable options are finally being taken seriously and winning a head-to-head competition with more traditional options.
"And maybe people are scoffing a little less," she said.
Engelking expressed confidence that the PUC will reach the same conclusion in March that Lipman already has.
"We believe he did a good job of sorting out the facts," Engelking said.
If Geronimo gets final approval, it's possible construction could begin in 2014 on at least some of the solar arrays planned for the southern half of Minnesota.
Geronimo has obtained leases or options to buy 23 plots of land near Xcel substations and intends to construct sprawling arrays of solar panels on 20 of them. Three of the 23 are near Mankato, including an 84-acre site near Waseca that would produce 10 megawatts of power — matching ones planned in Albany and Paynesville as the largest in the state.
Another near Eagle Lake would be eighth largest, producing 5.5 megawatts on a 47-acre site. A smaller 2-megawatt array is proposed near Lake Emily just east of St. Peter, but even that one would equal the current largest solar array in Minnesota, near Slayton.
Engelking said the state permitting process could push the start of construction to 2015, but all the arrays would be completed by 2016 when a federal tax credit for solar projects expires.
"The goal is to have everything on line by the end of 2016," she said.