Minnesota judge backs PV over gas

A US judge has backed a series of proposed PV plants over natural gas as the best way for Minnesota utility Xcel to meet its near-term energy needs, setting up a critical administrative battle in early 2014.

Assessing a handful of proposed power-generation projects – all but one of them based on natural gas – Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman this week ruled that the lone PV project represents the best deal for Xcel’s ratepayers.

The sweeping Aurora solar project is backed by Minnesota-based developer Geronimo Energy, which intends to build 100MW of distributed PV generation across several dozen sites in the state by 2016.

Italy’s Enel Green Power (EGP) has the first right to buy Geronimo’s finished renewables projects.

Xcel itself, in addition to several other energy companies, had proposed building gas-fired generation units to meet its future needs.

While important, the judge’s ruling is not definitive, and must still be approved by the state’s utilities’ regulator. A final decision is expected this spring, with key local business lobbies pulling for the gas option.

It is the first time that Minnesota has approached the question of its future generation needs through a competitive-style bidding process.

In addition to energy costs, the judge took into account factors such as socio-economic benefits and greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately concluding that Geronimo’s Aurora proposal represents “the most reasonable and prudent” option for the state.

The judge noted that opting for Aurora would also help the state meet its solar energy mandate, signed into law last year by Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, which dictates that Minnesota must source 1.5% of its electricity from solar by 2020.

Last year EGP bought a majority stake in Geronimo’s 200MW Prairie Rose wind farm in Minnesota, with all of the electricity sold to Xcel, the state’s principal power utility.

A similar deal would presumably be struck for Aurora.