Neal St. Anthony
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President Andy Kim of Eden Prairie and his solar engineering company EVS are riding the renewable energy wave.

EVS, which does much of its business in huge, sunny Texas, has grown from 50 to 120 workers since 2019.

The company just expanded its headquarters by 40% and is managing demand from developers and utilities for big solar installations — now considered with wind the cheapest forms of energy — as well as battery storage installations.

"We think we're going to reach 200 employees within the next two years because of all the work, as well as diversification into battery storage, transmission and substation work," said Kim, whose father, Dennis, founded the company as a commercial engineering shop in 1979.

That said, Kim and other renewable energy players this week acknowledged the immediate future is partly cloudy.

EVS has several projects on hold amid solar-component supply chain issues from China and inflationary cost hikes on steel that threaten all construction generally.

They are worried about a one-year investigation by the U.S. Commerce Department into whether Chinese companies are circumventing existing duties on solar panels and cells by using four Southeast Asian countries as bases.

Auxin Solar, a U.S. manufacturer, lodged the initial complaint. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said the Biden administration is "wreaking havoc within the industry" by moving forward with the investigation. The result could mean new tariffs for most solar panels and cells used by EVS and similar companies.

Largely because of feared tariffs, half of the respondents to a SEIA survey reported that more than 80% of their projects planned for 2022 could be delayed or canceled. All 20 U.S. manufacturers that use Asian-produced solar cells expect a "severe" impact. SEIA president Abigail Ross Hopper called it potentially "the most serious crisis ... in our collective history."

SEIA wants the Commerce Department to rule against another round of tariffs, first imposed by the Trump administration. A decision is expected by August.

Those short-term challenges aside, renewable energy is expected to grow.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy said the country must quadruple solar output over the next 15 years to up to 40% of its electricity to avoid the worst of the environmental and economic disasters that could result from climate change.

That's long-term opportunity for Minnesota's solar industry. Producers expect to increase power production from 2% of the state's electricity in 2020 to 10% by 2030 with wind as the dominant renewable.

"I couldn't be more bullish about our resilient and innovative future," said Gregg Mast, executive director of business group Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. "The data from last year shows how the clean energy transition is happening in Minnesota in real time, [including] the decline of energy imports."

Renewable energy has helped Minnesota to a cleaner, more efficient energy future. Moreover, a report this summer is expected to say that the renewable industry is back its pre-pandemic peak of 61,000 jobs in 2019. Positions range from solar and wind installers to building conservation-software jockeys.

Those jobs have been growing at 2.5 times the rate of the overall state job market. And that doesn't include thousands of state ethanol jobs.

Renewable energy provided 28% of Minnesota's electricity in 2021, according to the 2022 Minnesota Energy Factsheet released this week by Clean Energy and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Based on research by BloombergNEF, renewables, zero-carbon sources and nuclear energy make up 52% of the state's electricity.

Carbon emissions, the big contributor to climate change, are down nearly 50% from 2005, as Minnesota has transitioned from dirty, imported coal to renewables and lower-carbon natural gas. Renewables represented 81% of new generation capacity over the past decade.

Minnesota ranks ninth nationally in energy efficiency. How efficiently the state uses energy has increased to 29% from 24% since 2020, thanks partly to improvements in commercial building energy-conservation measures. And Minnesota's average retail electric price of 11 cents per kilowatt hour compares with the national average of 12 cents.

Becky Wacker, regional general manager of Trane Technologies, the HVAC company, called Minnesota "a leader in the nation in energy efficiency. There's a lot of business opportunity coming out of innovation, less reliance on natural gas and coal."

Ethan Zindler, who manages BloombergNEF's analysis and commercial teams, said in a virtual conference Monday that Minnesota has consistently increased economic output since 2010 while decreasing energy and pollution output.

"There has been extraordinary progress in power emissions, but it must be even better to get to 2030 goals," Zindler said, to cut carbon emissions to 50% of 2005 levels.

Transportation has now replaced the power industry as the No. 1 carbon polluter.

The International Energy Agency reported global electric-vehicle sales doubled to 8.5% in 2021 from 2020. Electric vehicle sales about doubled in Minnesota last year but trail the country and globe in percentage of new-car total market.