Neal St. Anthony
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Erik Saltvold, who recently invested in a $600,000 solar system atop the new Erik's Bikes headquarters in Minneapolis, is not the only Minnesota business owner catching rays.

Griffin Dooling, chief executive of Blue Horizon Energy, said his company is seeing "tons of interest from businesses large and small."

The solar design and installation firm in Minnetonka has grown from two full-time employees to nearly 50 since 2014.

"The growing list of clients like the improving economics as well as environmental benefits.Energy sustainability is a core piece of their business," Dooling said. "They're getting pressure from customers, employees and their boards about sustainability and values. We've seen clients who have used the solar component of their energy mix to win more business."

Solar is an increasingly important part of Minnesota's growing renewable energy mix.

In 2020, zero-carbon electricity of renewables and nuclear generated 55% of Minnesota electricity. And renewables — wind, solar, hydro — became the single-biggest source of electricity at 29% of total generation, according to the 2021 Minnesota Energy Factsheet commissioned by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, based on research by Bloomberg NEF.

Solar is expected to generate only about 2% of the state's electricity this year. The industry aims to supply 10% of the state's power needs by 2030.Solar employs more than 4,000 Minnesotans and was one of the fastest-growing job sectors through 2019.

The uptake of solar has been spurred by the declining cost of equipment and government incentives. Like other renewable sources, part of the appeal of solar is that it means less use of carbon, the burning of which has been linked by climate scientists to extreme weather and costs the U.S. untold billions in environmental damage not computed in the cost of combustion.

The Minnesota Legislature this spring voted for a $31 million appropriation that rewards school districts, community colleges and other solar users over the next two fiscal years.

Most of the beneficiaries of the law, with one exception, will be funded through the Renewable Development Account fund of Xcel Energy. Xcel pays into the fund as compensation for storing casks of nuclear waste on Prairie Island. It doesn't cost taxpayers.

Despite the recession, last year saw a record year of 2,441 solar "interconnections" to the grid of small-scale projects of up to 10 megawatts in the state, said Peter Teigland, interim executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy IndustriesAssociation (MnSEIA).

And there were several utility-scale projects, including the 100-megawatt Northwest Solar in North Branch.

The biggest incentive is $21 million headed to solar installations at Minnesota schools and community colleges, long championed by Sen. Dave Senjem, a Republican from Rochester.

"The 'Solar on Schools' program was a priority for MnSEIA," Teigland said. "Energy costs are second-highest behind [payroll]. By bringing down energy costs, school districts can put more money in the classroom. And it's a fantastic opportunity for kids to learn about solar and science and technology.

"Solar is contagious. You see your solar on schools or your neighbor's roof, you are more likely to inquire and even more likely to get it yourself."

The legislation also covers an innovative $100,000 "brightfield" project in Anoka County. A brightfield is a landfill or other contaminated land repurposed for solar generation.

The $100,000 will be used to pay off the bonds that financed the closed Anoka-Ramsey landfill. Redevelopment was barred until the bonds were retired.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study concluded that solar on old landfills could generate 1 gigawatt — enough power for up to 300,000 homes.

The lease payments on Anoka-Ramsey and future related projects will go into a solar-closed landfill fund to pay off remaining bonds on future projects.

Solar also is proving a valuable "crop" in rural areas. My colleague Jennifer Bjorhus recently wrote about the emergence of solar farms that generatemore than electricity and may provide food for animals.The often-marginal land beneath the solar arrays can be seeded with native pollinator-friendly plants.

The transition to renewable energy isn't cheap. This year's Minnesota Energy Factsheet found that Minnesota's average electricity price of 10.8 cents per kilowatt hour is more than the Midcontinent Independent System Operator regional average of 10.7 cents and the national average of 10.2 cents.

Critics often dismiss the carbon-driven climate costs. We need to put a price on carbon. And I support the growth of natural-gas fired plants that work well with renewables and emit less carbon than coal.

The state is falling short of its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

Minnesota created some 60,000 jobs in energy conservation and renewables over the last 15 years, as we made progress toward a cleaner future. We need to accelerate both. Solar growth is important as we better the environment through an economic opportunity.