Analysis of Minnesota's 10 percent solar goal says it can be met economically five years early

A closeup of a completed solar panel.
A closeup of a completed solar panel produced by Heliene Thursday, September 13, 2018 in Mountain Iron, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

A new study analyzing Minnesota's goal to produce 10 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030 shows it can be accomplished five years early — without breaking the bank.

Minnesota is adding solar to its energy mix in a variety of ways — on the rooftops of homes and businesses; in community solar gardens, which individuals can subscribe to without installing panels on their own roofs; and as giant, utility-scale solar installations.

The costs of expanding solar energy in the state vary, but overall, the study shows the costs are competitive with natural gas generation, said Josh Quinnell a researcher at the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment.

"We've shown that Minnesota can achieve its 10 percent solar goals at very competitive generation costs," he said.

A quarter of Minnesota's electricity came from renewable sources in 2017, but that was mostly made up of wind power. A 2013 solar energy law aimed at boosting solar as an energy source requires utilities to produce 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar by the end of 2020, and also established the 10 percent statewide goal by 2030.

The study released Thursday was commissioned by Minnesota Solar Pathways, a group of utilities, nonprofits and government agencies that are working to meet the law's requirements. The analysis included a scenario in which solar expansion is led by utilities as huge installations and a scenario where homeowners and businesses make significant contributions to solar growth.

116,000 thin-film solar panels will create 10 megawatts
The 116,000 thin-film solar panels at Camp Ripley outside Little Falls, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2017

Quinnell said the study shows that building more wind turbines and solar energy projects are among the cheapest ways for Minnesota to meet its renewable energy and climate change mitigation goals. Solar and wind energy don't require fuel costs like coal and natural gas, and the cost of the technology has declined over the years.

"The big takeaway here, and one that may be challenging to conventional wisdom, is that we don't need long-term storage for low-cost solar and wind generation. If we replace that instead by additional capacity, and use that capacity in a very smart way, we can reduce the costs," he said.

Quinnell said that means there will be times when electricity demand is so low that some wind and solar energy generation can be turned off. But overall, electricity demand is expected to increase in Minnesota as electric vehicles replace gas-powered ones and heating and water heating systems change from natural gas to electric models.

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