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The Northern Sunshine State

May 19, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Minnesota has enormous solar power potential, despite the perception that our long, arduous winters make this impossible. Our great northern state has a nearly equivalent amount of solar potential as Houston, Texas and several other southern states.

Our temperatures have an advantage for solar energy too, because photovoltaic cells function more efficiently in a colder climate. That is according to Lynn Hinkle and Ken Bradley, who gave a presentation on solar power in Minnesota at the Living Green Expo.

The presentation focused on solar power's many benefits and what it could mean for the state. These benefits include economic development, emissions-free energy, and greater energy independence. The state has great potential for development, which is evidenced by our burgeoning solar industry. Since the solar potential is evenly distributed across the state, economic development wouldn't have to concentrate in any one area. Job creation across congressional districts certainly provides political incentive to back further investment.

Lynn Hinkle, director of policy development for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, emphasized the economically competitive nature of solar power. During the presentation, he pointed out a statistic from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. Its research concludes that for every $1 million invested in solar, slightly more than 14 jobs are created, which beats the 5.5 jobs created by every $1 million invested in fossil fuels.

Others have validated this conclusion. According to a study conducted by the Copenhagen Climate Council, "renewable energy investment and energy efficiency measures can generate two to eight times more jobs per unit of energy delivered than the fossil fuel-based sector." That study examined how many job years per gigawatt of energy are produced in the U.S. electricity sector. It found that renewable energy overall produced more than fossil fuel-based energy, but it specifically found solar photovoltaic job creation to surpass all other forms of energy by an impressive margin.

Minnesota has set an admirable standard to derive 25% of the state's electricity use from renewable energy by 2025. According to the Copenhagen Climate Council report, if the United States were to set a 25% by 2025 standard, over two million jobs could be created.

As Minnesota progresses towards our goal, we will find that solar energy investment is wise, especially with its potential statewide benefits. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and privately operated, has mapped America's solar potential. When it comes to photovoltaic solar resource, the Southwest predictably wins with the most solar potential, but Minnesota rates well, only being surpassed by parts of South Dakota and Iowa in the Midwest. We far surpass Germany's solar potential — fourfold in fact. Interestingly, though, we lag far behind them in photovoltaic installation.

The Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 is what contains the 25% renewable standard, and it makes Minnesota more friendly to renewable energy. The Solar Works for Minnesota coalition is advocating for Minnesota to derive 10% of its energy from solar power by 2030 through another bill. Recent legislative action, however, has backtracked on the state's progressive energy legislation. The Energy Act contained emissions standards for new coal plants in the state, which has been targeted for repeal by legislation which has passed both the state House and Senate.

Minnesota's solar potential carries great economic development opportunities, and it's better for the environment. Using fossil fuels to power and heat our homes might be cost-effective now but when considering the externalities and need for long-term energy development, it makes sense for Minnesota to further develop emissions-free power in our own state. Investing in this type of energy is policy that moves Minnesota forward.

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  • Michael K. Martin says:

    May 24, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Not only is Minnesota ripe for solar power, the largest solar farm in Minnesota will soon go up near Slayton, MN.  I think there will be around 14000 panels. 

    Every Xcel Energy customer who plans to be in their house more than five, especially those with south-facing roofs, can get their solar panels for free after Xcel’s solar rewards rebate ($2.25/Watt)

    The outlook for solar energy growth in MN is bright.