Minnesota Public Radio: Big rise in irrigation pumping draws DNR attention to Minnesota’s ‘Bonanza Valley’

(Minnesota Public Radio, February 19, 2014)—In mid-winter, the arching quarter-mile-long sprinkler frames sit parked in Jim Anderson’s fields in a thick crust of wind-carved snow and ice. Come summer, though, they’ll begin their slow, circular rotation, watering row after row of corn, sugar beets and kidney beans.

Anderson, the great-great-grandson of Swedish immigrants who started farming this land in the 1880s, relies on more than 50 of these center pivot irrigators — each one pumping up to 800 gallons of groundwater per minute — to produce the kind of harvests his ancestors could have only dreamed of.

Modern irrigation technology has transformed this region in Stearns, Pope, Douglas and Kandiyohi counties in west central Minnesota, known as the Bonanza Valley. A former glacial river bed north of Willmar, it’s largely covered with thin, sandy soils that don’t retain moisture as well as more fertile farmland elsewhere in the state.

“Without the water, none of this would be possible,” said Anderson, 61, paging through a book of yield maps in a newly built conference room in one of the farm’s red outbuildings. Where his parents struggled in some years to raise a single cob of corn, 200 bushels per acre is now common.

But as groundwater use in the area surges to record levels, questions are resurfacing about whether there will be enough water for future generations of farmers without having an adverse effect on the area’s lakes, streams, wetlands and drinking water supplies. (Continue reading…)

For Minnesota utility, wind backed by hydro is ‘holy grail’

(Midwest Energy News, December 3, 2013)—Norway has been called the “battery” of northern Europe because of its huge potential to store energy in its hydro power facilities, which produce virtually all of the country’s electricity.

When generation ramps up at Danish wind farms, Norway can slow production at its hydro facilities, storing water in reservoirs to be released later when electricity is in shorter supply.

As much as 40 percent of Danish wind power is “stored” like this behind Norwegian hydro dams, according to a 2012 paper by Norwegian energy economist Johannes Mauritzen.

In northern Minnesota, an electric utility is proposing a 500 kV, cross-border transmission line that would let it tap Canadian hydropower under a similar arrangement.

Minnesota Power says the Great Northern Transmission Line would allow it to balance intermittent power from its North Dakota wind farms with dispatchable power from Manitoba hydro facilities.

“I think we here at Minnesota Power have coupled together what I like to call the holy grail of renewable resources,” said Dave McMillan, the utility’s executive vice president. Continue reading “For Minnesota utility, wind backed by hydro is ‘holy grail’”

Xcel, advocates at odds over Minnesota solar gardens rules

(Midwest Energy News, November 11, 2013)—As customers begin putting money down to join one of Minnesota’s first community solar gardens, new comments to state regulators reveal significant disagreements about how the program should work.

A new state law requires Xcel Energy to develop a program that will allow customers to buy shares of power produced at nearby solar installations, known as community solar gardens.

The idea is to make solar power accessible to the majority of Minnesotans who either don’t own their home or have a rooftop that isn’t sunny enough, strong enough, or angled correctly for installing solar panels.

Xcel unveiled its plan for the program on Sept. 30, and last week solar developers responded with several objections over proposed fees, rates and restrictions the utility would place on the projects.

MN Community Solar started accepting deposits a few weeks ago for a 40-kilowatt solar garden to be built on the roof of a south Minneapolis warehouse. But it expects it will have to refund that money if major changes aren’t made to Xcel’s proposal.

“I don’t believe that we’ll have a successful [community solar gardens] program if we don’t get better terms. I firmly believe that it won’t be successful,” said Ken Bradley, CEO of MN Community Solar. Continue reading “Xcel, advocates at odds over Minnesota solar gardens rules”

In Minnesota, Xcel proposes to split revenue from energy sales

(Midwest Energy News, November 7, 2013)—Minnesota’s largest electric utility is asking state regulators to change the way it sets electricity rates so that it isn’t penalized when customers conserve energy.

As part of a rate increase request filed Monday, Xcel Energy is proposing to partially separate its revenue from electricity sales starting in 2015, a policy known as “decoupling.”

If electricity sales were lower than forecasted for a given year, the utility would be allowed to make up the difference by charging a higher rate the following year.

The reverse would also be true: if electricity sales exceeded forecasts, the utility would have to refund the surplus to customers through a lower rate the next year.

Energy conservation advocates say the decoupling arrangement removes a historical disincentive for utilities to invest in energy efficiency programs.

“It’s a very big deal. This fundamentally changes the nature of the business if it happens,” said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program. Continue reading “In Minnesota, Xcel proposes to split revenue from energy sales”

Minnesota forum explores models for the utility of the future

(Midwest Energy News, November 5, 2013)—Utilities face a flurry of threats to their business model, from rising expectations and falling sales to new competition and aging infrastructure.

Bill Grant, Minnesota’s Deputy Commissioner for Energy, summarized the pressures in his opening remarks Friday at a policy forum in St. Paul called “The Future of Minnesota’s Electric Utilities,” organized by the Environmental Initiative, a Twin Cities nonprofit organization.

For decades, utilities have operated by borrowing money to built new power plants, transmission lines and other infrastructure to meet society’s constantly growing demand for electricity, the sales of which paid down the debt and eventually turned to profit.

A wrench has been thrown in that once reliable pattern, though.

Ever since the start of the Great Recession, utilities have been selling less electricity. Even as the economy recovers, electricity demand isn’t rebounding, a sign that utilities’ and customers’ energy efficiency investments could be paying off.

Meanwhile, utilities’ costs aren’t going down. They still have debt to pay, repairs to make, and things to build. In fact, costs are often going up due to a combination of aging infrastructure, new environmental regulations and changing expectations.

Under the current model, utilities have few options besides increasing rates. Those higher rates then give customers greater incentive to lower their use through efficiency projects or solar panels, which further cuts into utilities’ sales.

“There’s a real threat of creating a death spiral if the current model persists,” Grant said. Continue reading “Minnesota forum explores models for the utility of the future”

Minnesota’s day in the sun for determining the value of solar

(Midwest Energy News, October 28, 2013)—Karl Rábago could be called the grandfather of the value-of-solar tariff, but the concept is so new that “young parent” might be a more apt moniker.

The basic idea is that instead of paying customers with solar panels the retail electricity rate for their surplus power, utilities should pay a price that reflects the true value of solar to the grid. That could include added value for reducing congestion or generating during peak hours when power is most expensive.

Rábago helped develop the first value-of-solar tariff during his tenure as a municipal utility executive in Austin, Texas, which implemented the scheme just last year. Today, as an independent consultant, he travels around the country promoting and explaining the concept to others considering it.

Minnesota is the first state attempting to establish a value-of-solar tariff, and Rábago believes his baby is in good hands.

The state is about halfway through a months-long stakeholder process that will determine the guidelines for calculating solar’s value in the state.

“It reminds me of the way we did it first at Austin Energy, but even better,” Rábago said. Continue reading “Minnesota’s day in the sun for determining the value of solar”

Q&A: Karl Rábago, grandfather of the value-of-solar tariff

Karl Rábago

Karl Rábago

(Midwest Energy News, October 28, 2013)—As a municipal utility executive in Austin, Texas, Karl Rábago led a team that came up with the very first value-of-solar tariff, an alternative to net-metering that aims to pay utility customers a rate for solar power that reflects its actual value to the grid and society.

Today, as an independent consultant, Rábago is the concept’s chief evangelist. He’s been hired by the Minnesota Department of Commerce to participate in a series of stakeholder workshops that will help the state set the rules for how value-of-solar tariffs should be calculated in Minnesota.

Here is a transcript of a conversation we had with Rábago last week, edited some for clarity and conciseness.

Midwest Energy News: Of all the discussions you’ve been involved in regarding the value of solar, how does this one stand out?

Rábago: It reminds me of the way we did it first at Austin Energy, but even better. When I first launched the value of solar concept, I did it from inside a utility. Utilities generally stay pretty close to the vest on things they’re working on. There’s a certain amount of nervousness or paranoia inside the utility culture. It’s the nature of the industry. But Austin Energy was a municipal utility so we built in from the start conversations with stakeholders and engagement with our policymakers.

In Minnesota, it’s been a public process from the very start. It’s been wonderful. My first visit up there as a consultant was just informational; sharing the experience and talking to groups; MnSIEA and utility people in very open discussions. The Department of Commerce has just set up this wonderful [process]. Everybody is being very forthcoming and honest and direct. Continue reading “Q&A: Karl Rábago, grandfather of the value-of-solar tariff”

If landowners get annual payments for wind turbines, why not transmission lines?

(Midwest Energy News, October 23, 2103)—For the large metal tower constructed on his land, one farmer will receive annual payments for as long as it stands.

His neighbor, however, whose land is divided by a string of vertical structures, gets a more modest one-time payment.

As a historic transmission build-out continues across the region, landowners are increasingly questioning the fairness of rewarding wind project participants more than those who allow transmission lines to cut across their property.

Frank James, staff director for Dakota Rural Action, says it’s an increasingly common complaint from South Dakota farmers.

“You know what they’re getting paid for those turbines, and it’s pretty good,” James said. “You’re going to get a transmission line that serves those wind turbines and you don’t feel like you’re getting paid as [well].”

The comments were made Monday at the Great Plains Transmission Summit in St. Paul, where the topic of alternative landowner compensation models surfaced during several panel sessions. Continue reading “If landowners get annual payments for wind turbines, why not transmission lines?”

Can a Minnesota company make the case for wind-to-hydrogen?

A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)

A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)

(Midwest Energy News, June 3, 2013)—For all the theoretical promise of pairing wind energy with hydrogen production, no U.S. project has ever made it to full commercial scale.

In Minnesota, that may be about to change.

Hydrogen has long been studied as a potential solution to wind’s timing problem, which is that wind generation tends to be highest at night when demand for electricity is low.

Through electrolysis, in which electricity is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, surplus wind power at night could be converted to hydrogen, which could then be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity the next day during peak demand.

A handful of pilot projects have demonstrated the technology works, but no one in this country has succeeded in making it economically viable.

A Minnesota project developer believes it may have the answer: Supplementing hydrogen energy storage with sales of “carbon-free” hydrogen for industrial uses. Continue reading “Can a Minnesota company make the case for wind-to-hydrogen?”

Minnesota plants seeds for community solar gardens

(Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Creative Commons)

(Midwest Energy News, May 29, 2013)—Scott Cramer has sold offbeat, left-leaning T-shirts, political buttons and bumper stickers through his Northern Sun Merchandising company in Minneapolis for more than 30 years.

These days, one of his more popular slogans has an energy theme. “It says: Whenever there is a huge spill of solar energy, it’s just called a nice day.”

Which is why Cramer is more than happy to lease his 5,000-square-foot rooftop for what will soon be one of Minnesota’s first shared, community-owned solar installations.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill last week that requires the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to establish a community solar gardens program early next year.

The idea is to let customers who can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their own rooftop instead buy individual panels in a nearby solar development. The electricity generated by a customer’s panels is credited to their utility bill as if they were installed on their home or business. Continue reading “Minnesota plants seeds for community solar gardens”