Credit: Michael Janke

Today clean energy businesses and advocates will lobby the Minnesota legislature for the state’s first ever “Clean Energy Business Day.”

It comes at a time when lawmakers are looking to erode oversight of rural utilities, kill a solar manufacturing and renewable development fund, and try to impose legislative oversight in a settlement agreement with Volkswagen, among other  bills.

Gregg Mast, executive director of Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, said more than 90 people have signed up to speak to legislators about the importance of the sector and its growth. Among speakers at an event this morning is Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a vocal advocate for the clean energy sector.

“We’re looking forward to having businesses share their stories and talk about jobs and investment,” Mast said. “This gives business leaders the opportunity to reconnect with their elected representatives and senators and provide those who may not have ever been at the Capitol a chance to create constituent relationships.”

Others meeting with legislators include representatives from Minnesota’s largest investor-owned utility, Xcel Energy, as well as solar, wind, biomass, energy efficiency and microgrid companies.

One of the group’s priorities is to push for the state’s renewable energy standard to increase to 50 percent by 2030. Passed in 2007, the current standard is 25 percent by 2025, a goal the state’s utilities are well on their way to meeting or surpassing.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced.

“We’re going to speak about how policy is important and how it impacts businesses in their day-to-day decisions in terms of investing in business, in people and in keeping Minnesota as a competitive place,” Mast said. “A new renewable energy standard would send a strong signal that businesses can then be more confident in placing their investment in Minnesota.”

The pitch by Clean Energy Business Day participants will be more about “educating” than advocating for a new standard, Mast said. Advocates say the current standard helped create more than 54,000 jobs in approximately 800 firms around the state. The clean energy sector has grown 122 percent since 2000, Mast said.

Clean energy jobs on average pay $71,000, 42 percent higher than the statewide average, Mast said.

The companies and employees are scattered across the state, with wind and solar bolstering rural areas, Mast added. For example, one of the nation’s premier wind and solar installers is Blattner Energy in tiny Avon in central Minnesota, he noted.

“We going to share what’s going on, and how successful we’ve been, and the importance of public policy,” he said.

Xcel Energy, which has big plans for wind and solar expansion, supports the clean energy movement.

“Clean energy is important to Xcel Energy and our customers,” said Laura McCarten, a regional vice president for Xcel, in a prepared statement. “We are investing in renewable energy projects that reduce carbon emissions and, over the long-term, will save our customers billions of dollars in fuel and other costs. These investments, and those savings, will help create jobs as we move to more than 60 percent carbon free energy by 2021.”

Tom Carlson, manager of regulatory and legislative affairs at EDF Renewable Energy, said the event is “a great opportunity to highlight Minnesota’s clean energy economy and to address about how Minnesota can stay at the forefront. We want to be part of that and speak about our experience in the state.”

Two reasons Minnesota “jolted” to the front of leading states for clean energy stems from its wind resource and renewable energy standard, he said.

Increasing the standard would “provide greater market certainty for investors and ultimately attract even more competition from developers to the state,” Carlson said. “If Minnesota wants to stay at the forefront of renewables and realize the benefits of low cost, stable-priced power, the economic development and less pollution then increasing the renewable energy standard is something policymakers should strongly consider.”

His own company, San Diego-based EDF Renewable Energy, installs wind, solar, storage and biomass across the country. In Minnesota the company has developed roughly 900 megawatts (MW) of wind energy, with another 200 MW being developed this year.

“That’s close to half a million homes powered – that gives us an idea of our growth in Minnesota,” he said.

The company, he added, is looking at investing another 600 MW in Minnesota in wind, solar and energy storage.

While Carlson’s firm is global, many companies benefiting from the growth of the clean energy economy work closer to home.

The solar development firm Innovative Power Systems in St. Paul saw revenue increase by 1,000 percent from 2015 to 2016 as its work load increased dramatically with the construction of several community solar gardens, said Eric Pasi, vice president of business development.

In fact, last year the company installed 20 MW of solar, more than it had in the previous 24 years combined, he said. While the company has 25 employees, it often hires more than 80 people for larger solar garden jobs.

Recently, Innovative Power Systems hired many contractors to install a five megawatt community solar garden in Red Wing on land owned by the school district, he said.

The school district will both subscribe to the garden and receive money for leasing the land.  The deal will net the district more than $7 million in cost savings on energy and lease payments over the course of a 25 year contract, Pasi said.

Several projects this year are in rural Minnesota counties. “We’re paying property taxes that will serve those communities and we will be creating construction jobs during the projects,” he said. “There’s a definite economic reverberation in these communities.

“If lawmakers haven’t heard much from us previously this will set an expectation,” he said. “We will be in the future much more active in informing policy makers about the benefits of our industry.”

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.