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Solar power’s future is bright in upper Midwest – despite uneven history

Industry experts say solar is one of the next potential changes in the energy field.

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Copyright: vencavolrab /istock.com

For nearly 15 years, Dennis Latendresse has been running Wind and Solar World, the small Upham, North Dakota outfit that specializes in small-scale, renewable power – perfect, to hear him tell it, for the remote rural home or the farm.

The job requires a fair amount of travel. He took a call as he drove down the highway toward Colorado, where he had to pick up materials for his next job, he said. But that’s OK – nowadays, solar panel prices are falling, customer interest is up and business is good.

Some of his customers, Latendresse said, are doomsday preppers, getting ready for nuclear winter. Others might be worried about government overreach and want more independence from the grid. Others, he said, are set on doing their part to slow down climate change.

“I just want more people to have solar,” he said. “I’ll put more solar power out there and I’ll give a few people a job.”

The upper Midwest’s power grid – and likely beyond – is on the cusp of enormous change. While renewables like solar power are on the rise, so too is the shift toward electric cars, both of which promise to rearrange how regulators and power providers manage energy.

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“The energy industry is changing faster now than ever before,” said Ben Fladhammer, a spokesperson for Minnkota Power Cooperative. “It’s exciting, and at the same time it’s daunting. Energy mixes of different utilities, different states, are changing very quickly.”

Fladhammer mentioned the winter storm that struck Texas during February 2021, which knocked out power around the state for days , freezing and bursting pipes. The ensuing blackout contributed to the death toll, which soared past 100 – and left in its wake a political and logistical headache for Texas regulators, who faced questions for months about the future of the state’s energy grid.

“(That) caused great concern for the utility industry,” he said. “How do we make sure that we’re building a system that stays as reliable and resilient as it possibly can be?”

Michelle Rosier is an analyst with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. She points out that planning ahead for electricity needs looks vastly different than it used to – what was once a more straightforward weighting of power output, electrical grid and consumer need is now complicated by rooftop solar panels, power sources that rely on daylight or wind and the like.

“It’s now a much more comprehensive view,” Rosier said. “And that’s something that’s in progress around the country, figuring out how exactly to do that, as the grid evolves and our generation sources change.”

Solar is one of the next potential changes, especially in the upper Midwest, where both South Dakota and North Dakota lag in solar production. The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks both states 50th and 51st in solar energy production among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Part of the disparity, the Fargo Forum reported in August, is a more friendly Minnesota attitude toward solar power (SEIA ranks its output at 15th). One of Minnesota’s successes is its community solar garden program , which encourages smaller groups of consumers to buy shares in local solar arrays; the state has also spent on subsidies to boost the solar power industry.

RELATED: North Dakota's overshadowed solar industry imagines a different future

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Attitudes elsewhere are more laissez-faire.

“When you subsidize something, that means money has to come out of somebody else’s pocket. Our philosophy here is that we shouldn’t be raising rates on other utility ratepayers to subsidize those that might want to put solar on their home or business,” said Chris Nelson, the chairman of South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission.

But the future's still bright for solar in the upper Midwest. Jonathan Adelman, Xcel Energy’s vice president of strategy and planning, said that his company currently has about 3.5 million customers across eight states – with a view to “decarbonize” completely by 2050.

“Personally, I’m quite bullish (on solar),” Adelman said, pointing out not just the long-term drop in the cost of solar power but also likely incentives in the “Build Back Better” Act – which as of this writing was still a matter of debate in Washington, D.C. That’s helpful as the company looks to add thousands of megawatts of solar generation to its portfolio during the next decade. “I think it’s safe to say that solar is going to play a growing role in the system.”

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