Throughout 2020, states continue looking for ways to balance workplace safely and long-term sustainably. In Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission has a plan to jolt the state’s economy into recovery by empowering utility companies to fast-track projects that would both get workers back on the job and provide clean, affordable electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes.
In June, non-profit Clean Energy Economy Minnesota issued a report based on U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, finding that over 11,000 workers in Minnesota’s green-energy sector have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic. Numbers like this serve to further motivate the call from the PUC, which stipulates that projects provide “significant” benefits to the utility system, reduce carbon or other pollutants and create jobs or assist in the economic recovery. Two major utilities have stepped to the plate, offering solutions that include four big solar energy projects to speed up the economy and Minnesota’s transition to green power.
The most ambitious of proposals came from Xcel Energy with a $3 billion slate of projects estimated to generate as many as 5,000 jobs. The sun is at the center of it all with a massive solar project at the company’s coal-fired Sherco Power Plant in central Minnesota’s Sherburne County that once finished, could provide solar power to 240,000 homes. Originally set to be on grid by 2026, Xcel says they could be ready by 2023 or even earlier, depending on permits and equipment supply chains.
Minnesota Power is accelerating its plans to build solar arrays on three sites that would generate 20 megawatts of new solar power. Bethany Owen, president and CEO of Allete, the parent company of Minnesota Power, says: “We believe Minnesota Power can and must play a strong role in the economic recovery of the communities where we live and work. Moving up the timetable of planned solar projects will boost the tax base of local economies, add solar panels from regional manufacturers when possible, and support local construction jobs.” The new solar projects will give Minnesota Power a significant boost in meeting the state’s Solar Energy Standard, and further advance the company’s EnergyForward strategy to offer more carbon-free energy to customers.
Work could be underway as soon as 2021, using existing electrical infrastructure for the new solar projects. The new arrays will bring Minnesota Power’s energy portfolio to over 30 megawatts of solar power, with their existing 10-megawatt solar array near Little Falls and two smaller 40- and 1,000-kilowatt community solar gardens in Duluth and Wrenshall. In the meantime, the company is exploring other ways to help its customers survive the COVID economy. They’ve proposed lowering the eligibility threshold to 250 kilowatts of new electric demand on their business expansion incentive for new small businesses and for those looking to expand. As Gregg Mast, Clean Energy Economy Minnesota’s executive director, says: “clean energy businesses are uniquely situated to help repower the economy.” This most definitely includes utilities.