In the endless quest for best-possible power sources, solar energy and other renewable sources have long faced one overriding question: Are they consistent and affordable enough to work on a large scale?
Thanks to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, Central Minnesotans are about to get a front-row seat in watching that answer unfold. The commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve a massive, statewide solar energy project aimed at helping Xcel Energy meet power demands of its 1.2 million Minnesota customers in 2019 and beyond.
The commission basically OK’d a $250 million, 100-megawatt solar project and coupled it with constructing natural-gas plants, all of which should generate about 500 more megawatts of power.
No doubt, the PUC’s mandate gives backers of solar power the opportunity they’ve always wanted: To prove solar power is a viable, affordable large-scale alternative for fossil fuels.
From construction of the solar equipment starting next year to the costs and benefits from power produced, Central Minnesotans should watch this project carefully. Not only is it big locally, but it’s a safe bet other Northern states are watching, too.
As a Times news report Friday noted, four of 20-25 solar arrays (think fields of solar panels) will be built in Central Minnesota — three in Stearns County and one in Benton. Individually, each will be built close to power substations so the 2-10 megawatts of power generated can be transferred to the power grid with minimal loss.
Combined, these 20-25 arrays are expected to produce 100 megawatts of electricity, which will go a long way toward helping Xcel meet a state requirement that 1.5 percent of its electricity comes from solar power by 2020.
Even just a few years ago a large-scale project like this likely would have been cost-prohibitive. But that equation is changing due to solar technology improvements, a rapidly changing solar industry and increased pressure to diversify power sources. Such factors led an administrative law judge in January to recommend the solar plan to the PUC.
Interestingly, commission members Thursday adopted some of those recommendations, but not all of them — in part because they had concerns about solar’s reliability.
The PUC’s vote, though, clearly sets the stage for Minnesotans to finally determine whether solar power is consistent and affordable enough to work for the masses.
The editorial board
Our View represents the Times Editorial Board, whose members seek to provide opinion, information and leadership that promote public discussion and build a better community.
Melinda Vonderahe, President and publisher
John Bodette, Executive editor
Randy Krebs, Opinion page editor
Jason Bernick, Community representative
Jane DeAustin, Community representative