By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Today solar electricity is rare in Minnesota because it is so expensive, at least five times as costly as wind power.
The Legislature is weighing a requirement that the state’s utilities generate 4 percent of their electricity from solar power by 2025. The bill would also require utilities to get 40 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030.
The current standard, set in 2007, calls for 25 percent renewable power by 2025 for most utilities and 30 percent by 2020 for Xcel Energy.
“We think it’s time to nudge the standard forward,” said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy, a clean energy advocacy group. Her group is advocating utilities be required to get 10 percent of their power from the sun by 2030, which it estimates would create 2,000 jobs.
“What we’re finding is that it’s interesting that Minnesota has a better solar resource than any other state in the Upper Midwest ... but very far behind in how much we’ve actually developed,” she said. The state is 31st in the country in solar resources and fourth in wind power generated per-capita, Hamilton said.
Timothy Zinniel, president of Sleepy Eye-based Zinniel Electric, said his company started selling and installing solar panels in 2007 and now makes 50 percent of its annual sales from solar power.
“If (municipal power providers) and power companies could offer electricity from a local standpoint, they’d be creating more jobs locally. Our largest export is our dollars. Let’s keep them here,” he said.
Zinniel estimates he’d hire at least five more people if the solar standard passes.
That doesn’t include the jobs created by Minnesota’s two solar panel manufacturers, tenKsolar and Silicon Energy.
When Zinniel is working with a customer, he offers them both American- and foreign-made panels. The Chinese ones are sometimes cheaper, but Zinniel said many of his customers are willing to pay a bit more to buy American.
Xcel opposes both the solar standard and the increase to 40 percent renewables by 2030, Regional Vice President Laura McCarten said.
“We really would be concerned about arbitrarily setting a new higher level without having gone through a more thoughtful assessment of what the implications are,” she said of the 40 percent rule.
Part of McCarten’s concern comes from wind’s unreliability. Overall, about 12 percent of Xcel’s energy comes from wind power. But the amount of power generated at one time fluctuates as the state gets more and less windy. On the windy day of Feb. 17, for example, about 33 percent of the Xcel’s energy came from wind, she said.
So, if Xcel relies more on wind energy, it would have to spend more money to make sure everyone gets enough power on windless days.
Xcel’s opposition to the solar mandate focuses on its cost. The 4 percent mandate would cost roughly $1 billion, she said. That’s all new spending — solar can’t replace power generated using other means because the sun doesn’t provide the on-demand “peaking” power that Xcel actually needs.
That said, McCarten said Xcel’s wind energy spending hasn’t led to any price increases for customers. In other words, if the company had bought natural gas instead of wind, customers would be paying roughly the same amount.
Hamilton, the renewable energy advocate, said people who support the higher renewable energy standard should contact their legislators.
The state Senate’s version of the energy bill includes the 4 percent solar standard but only calls for study of the 40 percent by 2030 renewables standard. The House version includes both the solar and renewables standard increases.