MN West sees bright future for renewable energy

MARSHALL — Renewable energy trends are better than they’ve been in a decade, and Minnesota is known as a state that’s blazing the trail.

In a luncheon presentation Tuesday to the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce agriculture committee, Minnesota West Community and Technical College Dean of Energy Technology Bruce Peterson provided a comprehensive overview of Minnesota’s current energy production mix. He compared current statistics with those from the recent past and offered analysis of what’s likely to happen in the near future.

Along with his role at Minnesota West, Peterson is the executive director of the Minnesota State Energy Center for Excellence. He said renewable resources, particularly solar and wind energy, are by far the fastest growing segment of the state’s energy supply.

According to statistics compiled by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, renewable sources comprised 25 percent of the overall energy volume in 2017, compared to just 8 percent in 2007.

The 25 percent includes 18 percent wind energy, up from 5 percent a decade earlier. Although solar power saw a more modest increase, its total increased sixfold to 1.2 percent.

The remaining renewable sources, hydro-electric power and biomass (crop or wood based energy) remained constant. In both cases production potential is limited because of natural factors. The best hydropower sites were developed in the early to mid 20th century, while biomass lacks available land given the continuous need to produce food crops.

Meanwhile, nuclear power, 23 percent of the state’s overall total, is confined to only the two Prairie Island power plants near Red Wing and a third plant at Monticello.

Coal, hardly any of which is processed in Minnesota, is down from 59 percent to 39 percent. Many coal plants are outdated in terms of environmental standards such as scrubbers to reduce emissions. Upgrades or the construction of new plants carry high cost projections.

“The trends strongly favor solar and wind,” he said. “It goes beyond just environmental concerns. It’s also based on economics.”

Minnesota is well-positioned to remain a leader in renewable output. It ranks fourth in ethanol (mainly corn based) production, eighth in wind energy and 15th in solar energy. The solar ranking continues to climb even though Minnesota is a cold-weather state that in the past has not been able to produce as much year-round solar power as warmer Sun Belt states.

To capitalize on the economic growth potential, Peterson said it’s important for renewable energy supporters to form partnerships with rural landowners. They often host sites for wind and solar production. In doing so, they serve as economic partners with mostly non-locally based production companies.

It’s not a traditional farm enterprise, but it does offer an income opportunity for landowners,” Peterson said. “They can experience long-term financial advantages by having wind or solar production sites on their land.”

In response to a question from MVTV Wireless customer service and marketing development representative Julie Foote, he said developers are more inclined to obtain leases from landowners rather than entering into power supply contracts that involve landowners owning the production units.

“It’s easier for them to manage a central project site than to have production at everyone’s home,” he said. “Site issues are another obstacle in many locations. Minnesotans traditionally like trees.”

Another goal to maximize local profit from renewable energy is to provide developers with a labor force, at least during a start-up phase and also after a site becomes part of the electrical grid.

Minnesota West offers an energy technical specialist degree at its Granite Falls campus designed to facilitate employment in at least several different energy development industries. Granite Falls opportunities also include an online program for ethanol and biofuels production. Plans are being developed to start offering powerline technology classes beginning this summer.

Offerings at other campuses include wind energy, solar power, and electrical construction in Canby, along with solar power, electrical construction, and powerline technology in Jackson.

Peterson said that even with the best attempts to adjust educational programming in ways that meet changing industry needs, job prospects are often impacted by overall economic factors.

“The Canby wind technology program is the most robust in the state,” he said. “Ten years ago we were turning away students. The economy tanked in the recession, and the build-up afterward has been slow. It’s a huge opportunity for students who want a technical field because we don’t have enough current enrollment to meet demands. It’s likely that they’ll become site managers in three to five years.”

A variety of educational outreach projects are designed to generate student interest. One of them, a mobile energy trailer, is increasingly popular among school systems.

Paul Lanoue of rural Marshall, who grew up on a farm between Marshall and Tracy before becoming Minnesota West’s dean of agriculture and business, invited Peterson to be his guest speaker for Marshall Chamber members because of the many ways energy production is connected to agronomy.

“As a committee, we’ve worked to have more events,” Lanoue said. “Energy issues were one of the main topics we wanted to cover. It’s a good opportunity to learn.”

Marshall Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brad Gruhot said Marshall will host two regional events this summer in addition to agriculture committee speakers. A June professional workshop and energy site tours will be offered, followed by a second State of Ag panel seminar in July. The first panel, held in 2018, drew 65 people.

Marshall Municipal Utilities General Manager Brad Roos said before Tuesday’s presentation that he decided to attend because of how it promised to tie-in with MMU’s energy planning goals. Afterward, he said it was well worth his time.

“It was useful information about both electrical generation and efforts to bring qualified workers into the job market,” Roos said. “As a power supplier, we need both.”

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