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Clean energy can drive rural economy

Speakers call for switching out some of the $4 billion now spent on fossil fuel imports to Manitoba with homegrown renewable energy sources

Businesses are powered by solar panels on rooftops in downtown Minneapolis while small towns across the state source solar energy from “solar gardens” and farms harness the power of the sun to power up their barns.

Minnesota has become a leading U.S. state for its adoption of solar and other renewable energy sources, thanks to legislation and policies that set a goal of a quarter of its energy use coming from renewable energy by 2025.

“We made some great strides. We are at 25 per cent renewables right now,” Melissa Pawlisch, director with the University of Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) told the Manitoba Sustainable Energy Association conference in Winnipeg earlier this month.

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Interest in renewable energy was initially sparked by Minnesota’s farmers who wanted to establish small-scale ethanol plants and own wind farms, she said in her presentation.

Incentive programs led to both initiatives and a good deal of thought then put into where the wider community fits into the picture of renewables.

Now solar is what everyone in Minnesota is talking about. In 2013 Minnesota passed legislation requiring its largest utility Xcel Energy to develop and administer its Community Solar Garden Program and provide broader access for more Minnesotans to go solar.

A solar garden is a centrally located solar panel system people become subscribers and get the benefit of its production through a credit on their utility bill, said Pawlisch.

“The idea was that this would really democratize who can participate,” she said, noting that not everyone has the means nor space to put up solar panels.

A pilot program rolled out in December 2014 took everyone by surprise, she said. They expected there might be proposals for “maybe 10 or 20 megawatts of solar gardens.”

“Over 100 were proposed within the first week.”

Dedicated solar programs have since been established across the state, with residents now comprising the largest number of solar garden subscribers to the Xcel program.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association 98,000 homes in Minnesota are powered by solar and 1.3 per cent of the state’s electricity is now generated by solar.

The other part of Minnesota’s renewable energy story is new jobs created. A recent report showed clean energy jobs growing at just over triple the rest of the market. Minnesota now has over 57,000 clean energy jobs.

CERTs job is work connecting people and communities to the resources they need to first identify and then implement community-scale clean energy projects.

“These need to be solutions that are everywhere, across audiences across industries… so that everyone can see themselves in that future,” she said.

Pawlisch was one of eight guest speakers attending the Future of Sustainable Energy in Manitoba meeting hosted by MANsea this month.

Other speakers included Robert Elms, spokesman for the Manitoba Electric Vehicle Association (MEVA), championing the use of some of the carbon tax to be collected in Manitoba to help build charger stations in this province and create incentives to purchase more electric vehicles.

MEVA estimates 19 stations could be installed at a cost of about $3 million. Right now 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Manitoba is generated by the transportation sector, and most of that comes from private automobile usage.

Jeff Kraynyk, with the food and agri-product processing branch of Manitoba Agriculture pointed out that Manitoba’s energy imports are still approximately at $4 billion a year worth of fossil fuels.

“That’s all money leaving our economy and going to other jurisdictions,” he said in his presentation.

Kraynyk noted Manitoba’s capacity for producing biomass is growing, and now at over 100,000 tonnes of biomass annually. More growth is expected as more institutional users, which need to replace their aging boilers, look to biomass, accompanied by changes to the regulatory environment to accommodate these systems.

“The energy landscape in Manitoba is large,” he said during a later panel discussion.

“There is room for all renewables. There isn’t one technology that’s going to address this. This has to be an approach that embraces all technologies.”

Wayne Digby, MANsea director, said later in an interview the Minnesota experience shows what can happen when communities and groups of individuals are given the information they need to look at their energy needs and options and make choices.

MANsea continues to push for more domestic energy use and production, he said.

“Community-driven energy projects, we think, are the way to go,” said Digby.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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