2016 was a bright year for solar energy in Minnesota

Solar panels stretch across Eichten's solar farm.
About 15,000 solar panels line four acres of Ed Eichten's farm in Center City, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

Minnesota's solar energy capacity is skyrocketing after a breakthrough year. It took about 10 years to go from virtually nothing to 35 megawatts of capacity in 2015, but last year that jumped to 250 megawatts.

State officials don't expect the pace to slow. Within the next two years, they expect solar panels scattered throughout the state will be capable of producing as much electricity as a coal-fired power plant.

The biggest chunk of last year's jump in capacity occurred in the solar capital of Minnesota — Chisago County, just northeast of the Twin Cities. It has more solar capacity than any other Minnesota county.

It's there you'll find Minnesota's largest solar energy facility — the newly constructed North Star project. Xcel Energy is buying the power the panels produce — up to 100 megawatts. That's enough to power 20,000 homes.

"I do think that we will see this inspire others to see how they can push the limits a little bit, maybe get up to 200 or 250 megawatts," said Chris Clark, Xcel Minnesota's president.

While the North Star project is a pioneer among the giant, utility scale solar projects in the state, solar energy is nothing new in Chisago County.

Farmer Ed Eichten has been using the sun to make cheese commercially for years. Eichten built a small solar array in 2012.

"It took me just under four years to pay it off, so now it's already making me money every day," he said

His openness to building solar panels on his land led to a much bigger project last year — a 4 megawatt array where businesses, nonprofits, and even the local school district have subscribed as part of a community solar garden to get credit on their utility bills for the power the panels produce over the next 20 years.

"The sun is up every day and if the sun is up, the panels are working, so it's working every day of the year, so it really makes a lot of sense," Eichten said

Ed Eichten
Ed Eichten, who raises bison for meat and makes cheese, photographed in 2014 at his Hidden Acres farm near Center City, Minn.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

Another place where it can make sense to add solar panels is on or next to buildings that use a lot of electricity.

A Metropolitan Council wastewater treatment plant in Shakopee and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are just two examples of solar projects that have come online in the past year or so.

Rooftop solar on commercial buildings also helped drive the big year for solar. It was about a year ago when solar developer Ralph Jacobson was showing off new projects along the light rail line on University Avenue in St. Paul.

"We're in an era now where unlike 10 years ago when Minnesotans were skeptical about solar," he said. "Now there's sort of a forward-thinking like — 'Oh, you don't have solar yet? Why not?'"

But even as solar panels have become ubiquitous, the truth is that they only produce a tiny fraction of Minnesota's electricity needs — less than 1 percent.

That's going to change quickly, said state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.

"We're looking at a tremendous amount of growth for solar," Rothman said.

He said a combination of state renewable energy policies and the changing economics of solar energy is driving the growth. For example, he says, the cost of residential solar has dropped by 50 to 60 percent.

"As the costs and the technology are driving it to be more cost effective and affordable and demand increases, we will see that in 10 years from now our goal is to be at 10 percent of our electricity for solar," he Said

The Commerce Department expects that by 2018, Minnesota could have nearly four times the solar capacity it has today.

Correction (Jan. 13, 2017): An earlier version of this story included a graphic that indicated the wrong year in which Minnesota's solar power skyrocketed. The graphic has been removed.