Minnesota Gets Ready To Launch Solar Highways

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We tend to think of Minnesota for its fishing, snow, and progressive politicians, but solar? Well if Minnesota has its way, solar arrays could soon be seen along the public rights-of-way that line the state’s highways. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has released a request for proposal (RFP) accepting bids to build and manage solar arrays, which would provide the state’s grid a new and reliable source of clean energy for at least 20 years. Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

The solar highways RFP is the result of Minnesota Statute 216H, which obligates the state government to develop a plan to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The law established goals for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions 15% below 2005 levels by 2015 and 30% by 2025. That first step is creeping up on the state pretty quickly, which is one reason why MnDOT is searching for solar energy installers to design, develop, and operate solar arrays on otherwise unused land within the land of 1,000 lakes.

According to the Minnesota Post, this project could result in up to five megawatts of power installed along local highways within the next few years. That is, of course, provided there is an optimal amount of space along south-facing highway embankments; the state is leaving it up to bidders to demonstrate what areas are ripe for solar panels. At first glance, it is exciting to think that miles of highway embankments could be lined with solar panels, but MnDOT is going big—it says such public rights-of-way need at least one acre to allow for a minimum of one megawatt generation capacity from solar panels.

But according to the same Post article, Minnesota needs to find new revenue streams to generate revenues along those public right-of-ways to replace those lost in recent years. Few businesses want to be located along a busy highway; farming is the lone option in rural areas; parking and storage are possibilities in cities and suburbs. That unused space, seen as undesirable by just about everyone else, is now ripe for solar panels, especially considering how far their prices have dropped the last few years.

Despite the abundance of land and power lines that line countless highways across the United States, Oregon is the only state that has launched solar arrays using otherwise empty right-of-way space. California briefly flirted with a solar highways project in the Sacramento area, but dropped the plan earlier this decade. North of the border, Oregon’s first array, completed in 2008, generates 104 kilowatts of power, enough electricity for some of the surrounding freeway lights. Then in 2012, a much larger solar array along Highway 5 south of Portland opened with almost 7,000 solar panels generating 1.75 MW of energy. The Baldock Power Station would be quickly dwarfed by the Minnesota project should it come to fruition.

Here at CleanTechnica, we have long advocated for the installation of solar in areas such as our nation’s highways that otherwise go unused. As we noted a few years back, land surrounding highways and train tracks are often a money pit because of the maintenance required, such as landscaping, when they could be used to generate electricity instead—and those power lines are already there, ready to transmit that power to local homes and businesses. Meanwhile, Germany has been far ahead on this front, with several large photovoltaic installations that generate enough energy to power thousands of homes; one of them, in fact, even allows locals to invest in bonds to fund the project and pays yields over a 5- or 10-year period.

Compared to other states in the union, Minnesota has been slower to adopt solar, but change is on the way. Regulators have made decisions more favorable to solar in recent months, and earlier this year one of the state’s largest energy companies was ordered to invest in solar as well as natural gas projects. “Made in Minnesota” laws applying to the solar industry have also kept the price of solar high as its price falls across the rest of the nation. But earlier this month, the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport announced it would build a three-megawatt solar array that will provide 20% of its electricity needs upon completion in fall 2015. And nearby is a one-megawatt solar array at an Ikea, the first project in the state to hit that 1 MW milestone. In one survey ranking the 50 US states, Minnesota jumped 14 spots to number 8 in just one year. If Minnesota can experience a surging interest in solar, than so should other states in cold, northern climates—and develop energy projects in areas like public rights-of-way that otherwise are going unused.

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