State energy officials are joining with power companies to try to derail a proposed $250 million solar energy project in Minnesota that includes arrays in Eagle Lake, St. Peter and Waseca.
Edina-based Geronimo Energy plans to build about 20 large solar power arrays to meet future electricity needs of Xcel Energy Inc. customers in Minnesota.
But in regulatory filings Tuesday, the Minnesota Commerce Department, Minneapolis-based Xcel and two other companies that want to build natural gas power plants urged state regulators to reject the Geronimo's solar plan, the Star Tribune reported. One of those companies is Calpine Corp., which is proposing to nearly double the electricity production at its power plant on Mankato's north side.
Three weeks ago state Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman concluded solar would be a better deal than natural gas generation. He recommended the state Public Utilities Commission approve the Geronimo project. The commission is not required to follow Lipman's recommendations.
Critics of Lipman's solar recommendation, including the state Commerce Department, contend the judge assumed electrical demand would grow more slowly than once projected.
"We really think that (he) relied on an untested and unusually low forecast for future sales growth and he really didn't consider what would happen if the economy recovers as we expect it to," said Bill Grant, deputy commissioner for energy programs at the Commerce Department.
Betsy Engelking, a vice president for Geronimo, said those arguments were "thoroughly considered and rejected."
"Now they are taking another shot," Engelking said.
The state Commerce Department has been a supporter of solar energy. The department backed the 2013 state law requiring investor-owned utilities such as Xcel to generate 1.5 percent of their power from the sun by 2020.
"We are not saying no to solar," Grant told the newspaper. Instead, his department wants the commission to order a separate competition in which Geronimo's massive project would compete against other solar projects to meet Xcel's 1.5 percent mandate.
Solar supporters are disappointed by state energy officials' position.
"They have a mandate to promote renewables," said Kevin Reuther, legal director for the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in St. Paul. "They should be a champion for wind and solar."
Engelking told The Free Press earlier this month that the Public Utilities Commission, if it decides future demand for power will be greater than what the Geronimo project would produce, will have the option of approving both the solar project and a second proposal such as one of the natural gas plants.
One of those proposals is from the Texas-based energy corporation Calpine, which is seeking commission approval to add 345 megawatts of capacity to its existing 375-megawatt natural-gas-powered generating plant in Mankato. Calpine operates nearly 100 power plants across the country, including the Mankato Energy Center plant it put into operation in 2006.
In its proposal, the company emphasizes the efficiencies that would come with enlarging a plant that was constructed with just such an expansion in mind.
"The Mankato expansion optimizes the use of infrastructure currently installed at the existing plant, which was designed and permitted ... to be constructed in two phases as a full 720-megawatt power plant ...," Calpine's PUC filing states. "... The Proposal is a perfect example of the economically attractive expansion of an existing resource to meet future needs that the Commission must take into consideration in evaluating new capacity additions under (Minnesota law)."
The Geronimo project, if it gets final approval after the commission takes up the issue in March, would also have a highly visible impact on the Mankato area as soon as this summer when construction could begin on the solar arrays that would spring up across the southern half of Minnesota.
Geronimo has obtained leases or options to buy 23 plots of land near Xcel substations and intends to construct multi-acre arrays of solar panels on 20 of them. The parcels include 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. The one near Lake Emily just east of St. Peter would be among the smallest at 2-megawatts, but even that would equal the current largest solar array in Minnesota, located near Slayton.