By Kristen MIller May 30, 2017

Solar power is shining brightly in Minnesota. The state Department of Commerce recently reported solar energy growth nearly doubled in the first quarter this year compared to all of 2016, with more growth expected by year’s end.

Schneiderman’s Furniture store in Plymouth is one of the businesses that decided to take advantage of both the federal investment tax credit and the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program, to make the transition to solar. There is currently a 30-percent federal tax credit that can be claimed against the tax liability of residential and commercial solar users and utility investors in solar energy property.

The state House of Representatives has approved a bill that would end the Made in Minnesota program, which has been in place since 2014, and is a production-based incentive to support the manufacturing, sales and installation of Minnesota-made solar electric systems. The Senate bill was referred to committee and it was not clear if the matter was included in the legislation approved during the special session.

In 2017, the state incentive program supports 679 solar projects that will add about 10 megawatts of new solar electric power. Since 2014, the program has helped support about 1,800 new solar projects and more than 25 megawatts of capacity.

In 2014, the Scheidermans were building their Woodbury location, and decided to look into the process. Seeing that it was a good economic decision, with the return on investment of less than five years, Schneiderman’s began the transition to solar with the help of Chris Psihos, owner of Ideal Energies, a Minnesota-based commercial solar energy developer with more than 140 commercial systems in operation.

“Once it makes sense [from a business perspective], you feel good about the energy savings as well,” said Larry Schneiderman, retired president and CEO.

The family-owned furniture retailer installed rooftop solar power systems at three of its six locations, including Plymouth, Woodbury and Duluth.

“I’m more than satisfied,” Schneiderman said of the energy-savings. He referenced online reports showing when the stores are using or storing solar power.

“Minnesota is enjoying dramatic solar growth from residential, commercial, community solar and utility-scale projects, said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “This solar growth is being driven by both innovative public policies and market forces, as solar becomes more and more cost competitive. What used to be called alternative energy isn’t alternative anymore. It’s mainstream.”

Solar provides positive results for both the environment and the economy with solar jobs in the state increasing 44 percent in 2016, with nearly 4,000 Minnesotans now employed in the industry, according to the commerce department.

“Solar presents our state with a tremendous opportunity for a clean, sustainable and job-creating energy future,” said Rothman.

According to data compiled by the department, Minnesota added 203 megawatts of solar electric capacity in the first quarter of 2017, compared to 207 megawatts of solar added during all of 2016.

Minnesota’s total solar capacity has grown from just one megawatt in 2009 to 447 megawatts as of March 31, with more than 800 megawatts projected by the end of the year. One megawatt powers about 140 homes.

Rothman credited state and federal clean energy policies for helping spur Minnesota’s solar market growth by promoting technical advances, reducing costs and increasing consumer and business demand.

In 2013, Minnesota passed the Solar Energy Standard that requires investor-owned utilities to obtain 1.5 percent of their electric power from solar by the end of 2020, with a goal of 10 percent by 2030. Minnesota’s solar market also benefits from other state clean energy policies and incentives, as well as the federal renewable energy tax credit.

The state’s solar growth comes from a combination of residential and commercial rooftop, community solar and utility-scale projects. The bulk of new solar energy in 2016 came from large utility-scale projects, including the 100-megawatt North Star solar project in Chisago County. A 10-megawatt solar array was completed in November by Minnesota Power at Camp Ripley near Little Falls.

Although solar currently provides less than one percent of the state’s total electricity, costs are dropping and the market is expanding rapidly, making solar a growing contributor to Minnesota’s renewable energy portfolio.

If projections are met, Xcel Energy will likely exceed the state’s 1.5 percent standard by the end of 2017 – three years ahead of deadline.

Tips for going solar

The Department of Commerce recommends, before investing in solar, home and business owners first consider making some basic improvements to save energy, including:

• Getting an energy audit.

• Sealing air leaks and add insulation.

• Repairing or replacing old heating and cooling systems.

• Replacing old lighting with high-efficient LEDs.

By making a home or business energy efficient first, one can reduce their energy consumption. A decrease in energy demand will reduce the size of investment needed for a solar energy system and will maximize the returns on the system.

Steps before going solar:

• Get educated – Learn about solar through sources such as the Clean Energy Resource Teams and the U.S. Department of Energy. Talk to other homeowners or businesses who have already installed solar.

• Plan your system – Find out if your location is suitable for solar. The Commerce Department offers the MN Solar App, an online tool that provides an instant analysis of the solar energy potential of a property. Home or business owners can contact a professional solar installation company to do a detailed site assessment.

• Learn how to pay for it – The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency provides the most complete list of financial incentives for solar systems. It includes information on the 30-percent federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit; incentive programs, rebates, and loans from utilities and state agencies (including the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program); and state sales and property tax exemptions. A solar contractor can help identify incentives and financing options.

• Get Bids – To locate installers, check lists from the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and the Clean Energy Project Builder. Get two or three bids and make sure to compare apples to apples. Be sure each bid specifies system type and size, expected energy production, maintenance requirements, warranties and installed cost.

• Finalize a contract with the professional solar installation company and have the system installed.

• Maintain the system and keep track of its energy production.

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