Massive Minnesota Solar Project Gets Major Legal Boost

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The Geronimo project would produce 100 megawatts of solar energy.

The largest-ever proposed solar project in Minnesota received a powerful legal boost Tuesday, when administrative law judge Eric Lipman recommended Geronimo Energy’s Aurora Solar Project above five other proposals that utility Xcel Energy submitted to state regulators as part of a competitive bidding process. The other projects considered were almost exclusively for new natural gas generators.

Xcel, one of Minnesota’s biggest utilities, needs to add an additional 550 megawatts of new electricity generation by 2020 to meet predicted rising energy demands. And solar, according to Lipman, is the best deal. The Geronimo proposal is for a 100-megawatt distributed solar project, with 20-25 sites in 18 counties. Each solar park would range from 2-10 megawatts. The largest of the Geronimo solar parks would be five times bigger than the state’s largest solar array in Slayton, Minnesota.

In his report, Lipman wrote that “The Geronimo project will have numerous socioeconomic benefits, minimal impacts on the environment and best supports Minnesota’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.” He also called the Geronimo project “the most reasonable and prudent alternative to meet Xcel’s near-term needs.”

“We feel like the judge found that our proposal was effective in a number of ways,” Betsy Engelking, Vice President of Geronimo told SCTimes. “It’s “the first time that solar’s gone head-to-head with gas facilities in this sort of a proposal and has received this sort of a recommendation.”

Geronimo’s Aurora Solar Project would receive no state or utility subsidies, but would qualify for a federal investment tax credit. It is expected to cost $250 million. If approved, construction would begin in 2015.

Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard mandates that utilities provide 25 percent of their total electrical generation from renewable sources like wind and solar power by the year 2025. In addition, in spring 2013, Governor Mark Dayton signed an economic development bill that included a solar energy standard stipulating that by 2020, 1.5 percent of the state’s electricity must come from solar. This means that utilities are going to have to add about 450 megawatts of solar power to their portfolios.

Lipman’s endorsement of the Geronimo proposal comes after the Minnesota Department of Commerce advised Xcel earlier this month against investing in a new solar project. Instead of solar, which the Commerce Department asserted was not cost effective, the department recommended that Xcel convert a coal-fired power plant in the town of Burnsville to a 215 megawatt natural gas facility.

Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission is expected to issue its final ruling in March.