By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo
Posted: 02/20/2013 12:01:00 AM CST
Updated: 02/20/2013 09:34:16 PM CST
Minnesota should have a mandate for using solar energy similar to the one it has for using renewable wind energy, say backers of a pair of bills to be filed Thursday in the State Legislature.
The bills would require the state's utilities to produce 10 percent of electricity from solar energy by 2030.
A solar standard would raise present utility rates by 1 percent per year, starting with the first year, and be borne by ratepayers, its backers said in a news conference at the State Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 20.
But legislators sponsoring the Solar Energy Jobs Act emphasized it as a jobs bill, saying it will create 2,000 jobs in its first year alone, based on analysis using software from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
State Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, and the author of the House version, said a solar energy standard also could attract more than $230 million in investments in its first year and create new businesses or lure existing ones from out of state.
"This bill will provide jobs -- thousands of them across the life of the bill," he said.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which trains members as solar installers, supports the bill, said Andy Snope, the union's business representative. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility and likely the biggest consumer of any new solar generation, opposes the 10
percent standard. Solar energy is not the most cost-effective way to expand the state's use of renewable energy, its officials say.
"Rather than a 10 percent mandate, we should ask, 'What is the goal we're trying to achieve?' " Xcel regional vice president Laura McCarten said. "If the goal is improved environmental performance, shouldn't we try to get there in the most cost-effective manner?"
The cheapest form of new energy generation involves a program that conserves energy and reduces the need for additional generation, which cost between 1.3 cents and 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, she said.
Next comes wind energy, with its production tax credits, and natural gas, which each cost roughly in the range of 4 cents to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, McCarten said.
Large utility-scale solar projects -- like a newly opened 2,000 kilowatt project in Slayton, Minn., from which Xcel is buying power -- create electricity at a cost of between 10 cents and 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, including investment tax credits, McCarten said.
But small rooftop projects on homes and businesses can cost between 20 cents to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour even with the tax credits, she said.
Xcel supports creating jobs and stimulating the economy but said "reasonable energy costs" are critical for both, McCarten said.
The state's solar industry agreed with Xcel's cost estimates for large solar projects, but it says Xcel is overstating the cost of rooftop installations.
The cost of producing solar energy has dropped dramatically in just the past few years, and it is expected to decline further as the technology improves said Lynn Hinkle, director of policy development for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry's trade association.
"It's a moving target," he said.
Still, a 10 percent solar standard would require Minnesota to boost its solar energy capacity from 13 megawatts today -- or less than 1 percent of Minnesota's present electricity generation capacity -- to 5,300 megawatts by 2030, assuming power demand remains flat, Hinkle said.
That's a daunting goal, but the backers said the solar goal is comparable to one for wind energy when the state's renewable energy goals were enacted in 2007.
Utilities then had little wind energy online, but now most are on track to meet the state mandate of deriving at least 20 percent of their electricity production from wind energy by 2025 -- or, in the case of Xcel, a mandated 25 percent by 2020, said Ken Bradley, program director of Environment Minnesota and chairman of the Solar Works for Minnesota coalition of groups pushing for more solar energy development.
Minnesota, he said, has as much sunshine as Jacksonville, Fla., and cold sunny winter days actually help because the panels work better if they don't overheat, he said.
The backers of the bill said an early January poll by Minnesota Environmental Partnership showed 74 percent of voters support a 10 percent solar standard.
The poll also showed 73 percent of voters would pay $1 more per month on their electricity bills for more solar power, the group said. The margin of error for the poll was 4.4 percentage points, the group said.
The 10 percent mandate under the Solar Energy Jobs Act would be in addition to the state's current renewable energy requirements and should not conflict with wind energy production, Hinkle said.