Go-ahead for 100MW Minnesota plant

Minnesota’s regulator has agreed that Geronimo Energy's 100MW Aurora PV scheme is the most cost-competitive option for the utility Xcel, in a landmark ruling for solar power in the Midwestern US.

The Aurora project, which will be spread over two dozen or so sites across the state, represents a breakthrough for PV as it attempts to compete with natural gas and coal in the Midwest.

Late last year an administrative judge tasked with privately weighing the economic merits of Aurora and three competing gas-fired power plants ruled that the PV project represents the best deal for Xcel’s ratepayers.

The ruling still needed approval by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner, the state’s regulator, and with key local business lobbies pulling for the gas options the outcome was far from clear.

However, in a 4-0 vote late last week the regulator sided with the judge’s ruling, opening the gates for construction to kick off next year at the $250m Aurora and wrap up in 2016.

In a decision referred to by some observers as the “solar-plus” option, the regulator also paved the way for new gas capacity to be added to replace coal capacity slated for decommissioning.

But Geronimo vice president nevertheless calls the ruling "a big win for us, as well as the larger solar energy industry".

Earlier this month Xcel, which boasts more than 3 million electricity customers, submitted a plan to acquire up to 150MW of solar capacity by the end of 2016, and another 150MW by 2020, as part of the state's binding solar-energy goal.

The utility presently has just 42MW of PV and 326MW of wind capacity on its books, compared to 7.6GW of coal-fired and 6.8GW of gas-fired capacity.

Aurora will be spread across 16 Minnesota counties, in arrays ranging from 2MW-10MW, to keep generation close to existing substations, reduce transmission losses and add an element of geographic diversification.