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Xcel Energy offered the most ambitious slate: $3 billion worth of projects that could generate as many as 5,000 jobs. (Science in HD on Unsplash)

When Minnesota’s largest utilities released plans for putting people to work during a sagging economy while also speeding up the state’s transition to green energy, solar energy topped two of the companies’ lists.

The June proposals by Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, which include solar projects at four sites in Greater Minnesota, came at the urging of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which had asked the big utilities it regulates to move up the completion dates of energy projects that were in the works.

The commission must now consider the plans, along with those put forward by other utilities, for approval. “It was nice to see that they gave us a lot to work with,” said Joseph Sullivan, the utilities commissioner who first floated the idea for sped-up projects in May. “They really stepped up.”

The announcements highlight the role that green-energy projects might play in a COVID-damaged economy, which gained further momentum in a jobs report released June 25 by a business-oriented energy group.

The study, issued by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, said that more than 11,000 workers in the green-energy sector in Minnesota have filed for unemployment benefits since the COVID pandemic began in March. The group defined such workers as those involved in energy efficiency, clean fuels and other areas. The report was based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Rural footprint

The proposals appeared in lengthy documents submitted to the MPUC in response to its request.

Xcel Energy offered the most ambitious slate: $3 billion worth of projects that could generate as many as 5,000 jobs. The centerpiece is a solar project at the company’s coal-fired Sherco Power Plant near Becker in central Minnesota’s Sherburne County. It could cost as much as $650 million and would provide enough energy to power 240,000 homes.

In an interview with MinnPost, Christopher Clark, Xcel’s president for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said it makes sense for the company to add solar power to the Sherco plant, which has shuttered some of its coal-burning capacity. “We thought it was a great fit for this opportunity that the (MPUC) has identified,” he said.

The company also proposes to spend $1 billion or more on upgrades to its wind farms or to possibly purchase additional wind energy.

Minnesota Power, in its submission, included solar projects at two existing locations – its Laskin Energy Center Park in Hoyt Lakes, on the Iron Range, and its Sylvan Hydro Station near Brainerd – and another at a site in Duluth. The company, which serves a swath of central and northeastern Minnesota, said the projects would cost an estimated $40 million and power at least 4,000 homes.

Bethany Owen, president and CEO of Allete, Minnesota Power’s parent company, said in a news release [PDF] that the solar arrays will help the company reach its goal of generating half of its energy through renewable sources by 2021. Minnesota Power already runs a 10-megawatt solar array at Camp Ripley, the Minnesota National Guard base near Little Falls.

Moving fast

The fast-moving developments in Minnesota’s utility industry illustrate the impact the COVID pandemic is having on the state’s green economy.

Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, in its jobs report, said green energy jobs, before the pandemic, had been growing 2.5 times faster than jobs in the overall economy. The 11,000 workers who applied for unemployment represent about 18 percent of the green-energy workforce, the organization said. Gregg Mast, the group’s executive director, said the agency believes “clean energy businesses are uniquely situated to help repower the economy.”

Xcel Energy had planned to have its new solar projects on its grid by 2026. Under its fresh plan, according to Clark, those projects could be ready by 2023 or even earlier – though that depends on a host of factors, including the timeliness of permits and the strength of equipment supply chains.

Amy Rutledge, a spokeswoman for Minnesota Power, said in an email that the company hopes for a quick turnaround from the MPUC. The company included nine letters of support from city and county officials in its filing with the agency.

“We certainly hope our projects will be approved as quickly as is possible and will work with the Commission to help ensure the process is efficient so we can expedite these projects and help get our communities on the road to economic recovery,” she said.

Sullivan, the commissioner, said in the next few weeks the MPUC will begin working on a timeline for reviewing the projects.

Gregg Aamot is a longtime Minnesota journalist and college instructor. This story first appeared in MinnPost.

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