Minnesota Lays Claim To First-Of-Its-Kind Renewable Energy Hybrid

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Minnesota was the first state in the US to cozy up to the idea that an integrated wind and solar power plant could cut costs for both, making renewable energy an economical alternative to coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, too. The idea was first proposed back in 2017, and now two years later the first-of-its-kind project is finally nearing completion. When it goes on line within the next few weeks, the new wind-solar hybrid will have a bonus community power element, too.

A Renewable Energy Hybrid For Minnesota

As of 2017, Minnesota still relied heavily on coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy for electricity generation, but its wind and solar portfolio has been coming on strong.

CleanTechnica’s Joshua Hill took a quick look at the wind-solar hybrid proposal in February of 2017 and observed:

While the project is small, it’s nevertheless a good start. The 4.6 megawatt project is a community project set for Red Lake Falls in Minnesota, and to be developed by North American developer Juhl Energy. GE Renewable Energy has been contracted to supply two 2.3-116 wind turbines from GE Renewable Energy’s Onshore Wind business, as well as 1 megawatt (MW) of solar power conversion equipment provided by GE’s Current business.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds. In GE’s integrated renewable energy system, electricity from the solar panels is funneled through the wind turbine converter. Balancing that input is a tricky business, but the effort is worth it. According to GE, the overall capacity of the system will increase by 3% to 4%, while boosting annual production by up to 10%.

Yes, Renewable Energy Hybrids Are Complicated

GE calls its integrated system WiSE for Wind Integrated Solar Energy. Here’s the explainer from GE:

In a “Wind Integrated Solar Energy” (WiSE) solution, owners integrate wind and solar at the wind turbine level instead of farm-level rather than running a wind and solar plant independently.

Integrating at the wind turbine level leverages the existing wind converter as a hybrid converter to source AC and DC power together, eliminating the need for a separate solar inverter. With the integration at the turbine level one can also leverage the existing electrical connection infrastructure and Balance of Plant equipment which reduces the overall CAPEX per MW output.

GE has only two other similar projects listed on its website, so if all goes according to plan in Minnesota expect to see more of this.

Meanwhile, apparently the renewable energy hybrid project turned out to be a little more complicated than expected. The initial startup estimate was for the end of 2017, and now here we are at the beginning of 2019.

Nevertheless, by the end of 2018 the project’s financials were shaping up . It caught the eye of Bank of America, which agreed to purchase RECs (renewable energy credits), enabling the bank to fulfill a 100% renewable energy commitment for its electricity use in Minnesota.

Let’s Hear It For Rural Electric Cooperatives…

Credit is also due to the Lake Region Electric Cooperative for hosting this forward-looking project. Rural cooperatives offer rich opportunities for growing the nation’s portfolio of wind and solar projects and LREC is a good example.

Earlier this year the CEO of LREC, Tim Thompson, took a look back at the coop’s 2018 activities and focused on renewable energy:

No question about it, 2018 was a big year for Lake Region Electric Cooperative. It’s been exciting and productive, as well as setting up our cooperative for the year ahead.

Responsiveness. Reliability. Resiliency. Renewables. Rates.

Much of our work during 2018 focused on these five critical goals. I’m proud to say that Lake Region made very good progress on each of these fronts.

That’s just for starters. Mr. Thompson got really cranked up when he turned attention to 2019 and beyond (breaks and emphasis added):

We look forward to bringing on-line our new wind/solar hybrid project for electric generation. Having a new local renewable energy source within our service area will help with rate stability. As the generation of electricity becomes cleaner, we will seek out ways to use renewable energies towards what the industry has dubbed “beneficial electrification.”

This means turning renewable-based energy into new ways to power our daily lives and electrify our local economies.

Essentially, the electric cooperative industry has entered a new era—an era we welcome whole-heartedly.

It’s also worth noting that site selection was apparently an issue for the new hybrid wind and solar project, until a local farmer and Lake Region Coop member stepped in and offered his property.

For those of you keeping score at home, rural electric cooperatives provide about 13% of the electricity in the US. They cover about 42 million people in 2,500 of the nation’s 3,141 counties, covering all but three states.

Included in the mix are 20 million “businesses, homes, schools, churches, farms, irrigation systems, and other establishments” according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

…And The Green New Deal

When you’ve lost rural America… well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Existing contracts and other obstacles are keeping a lid on the transition to renewables among electric cooperatives, so it’s not going to happen overnight.

Nevertheless, demand for renewables is building regardless of geographic location or political persuasion, and the co-ops are in a unique historical position to lead the charge.

After all, the co-ops got their start on the heels of the Great Depression, when 9 out of 10 rural dwellings still had no electricity and the big utilities were not motivated to build out their networks for a handful of scattered customers.

In 1937 the federal Rural Electrification Administration came up with model legislation that enabled states to set up not-for-profit co-ops owned by consumers. Here’s NRECA with the happy recap:

…Today, about 99 percent of the nation’s farms have electric service. Most rural electrification is the product of locally owned rural electric cooperatives that got their start by borrowing funds from REA to build lines and provide service on a not-for-profit basis. REA is now the Rural Utilities Service, or RUS, and is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you catch a whiff of the Green New Deal in any of that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, consider that US farmers are already hurting from President* Trump’s foreign trade policies, and you can see where rural co-ops are powerful advocates for low cost, low risk energy.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to the Lake Region Coop to catch up on their plans for 2019, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

Photo: combined wind and solar power via GE.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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