Minnesota judge backs solar in favor of gas

A judge in the U.S. state of Minnesota ruled last week that solar energy was a more economical and better environmental investment for the state than gas producers.

Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman said utility giant Xcel Energy should therefore invest in solar developer Geronimo Energy instead of natural gas generators.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ordered the proceeding to force energy companies to compete on price as the state seeks the most cost-effective projects to deliver an extra 150 MW of new capacity by 2017.

Geronimo submitted a plan to the Commission last year for an unsubsidized 100 MW project consisting of 20 arrays in 17 counties in the state budgeted at a total of $250 million.

Judge Eric Lipman chose the Geronimo project over three gas turbines by Invenergy as well as Xcel’s own proposal for a gas facility.

The ruling still has to be approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The commission is expected to issue its final ruling in March.

In May of last year, Minnesota’s state government established a new solar energy mandate that obliged Xcel and other utilities to acquire 1.5% of its retail sales from solar energy by 2020. An already existing law already requires Xcel to provide 30% of its retail energy needs through renewable energy by 2020. A Minnesota law passed last year requires that 1.5% of the state’s electricity be solar generated by 2020.

Lipman said in the 50-page ruling, issued on Dec. 31, that the Geronimo project would "have numerous socioeconomic benefits, minimal impacts on the environment and best supports Minnesota’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases."

The decision, if approved by the Commission, would help Xcel fulfill its requirement to attain 1.5% of its power from the sun by 2020 under a new state energy law.

Speaking to Al Jazeera America, Geronimo Vice President Betsy Engelking said the decision marked a turning point for the solar industry as it was the first time that unsubsidized solar energy had gone head-to-head with natural gas resources and been selected as the best option.

"The judge decided that it was the best option for economic and environment reasons," Engelking told Al Jazeera. "Economically, the judge found that it was the lowest cost option offered."

Greenpeace spokesman David Pomerantz told Al Jazeera that solar energy was not only better for the environment, but also that rulings such as the one in Minnesota prove "that it’s better for our pocketbooks too. Electric utilities around the country should embrace the solar revolution that their customers are increasingly demanding, or they risk becoming fossils themselves."