University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
Energy Transition Lab

Keeping the buzz alive: ETL receives $50,000 gift for research on pollinator-friendly solar

December 21, 2018Andrew ButtsETL Blog, FeaturedComments Off on Keeping the buzz alive: ETL receives $50,000 gift for research on pollinator-friendly solar

Could we do right by pollinators while harvesting an irreplaceable renewable resource? A new IonE press release spills the BEEns on ETL’s new Solar + Pollinators project, which has received generous support from Connexus Energy and is investigating the costs and benefits of co-locating pollinator friendly habitat with solar farms. To read more, check out the press release!

Pollinator-dependent crops surrounding solar arrays lead to a natural increase in pollinators, which the Minnesota Department of Agriculture describes as “an irreplaceable public resource” integral to 35% of the world’s crop production. 

Ellen Anderson Presents: Carbon Neutral Minnesota – IonE Impact Goal

December 12, 2018Andrew ButtsETL Blog, FeaturedComments Off on Ellen Anderson Presents: Carbon Neutral Minnesota – IonE Impact Goal

At the 2018 Institute on the Environment Annual Meeting, Ellen Anderson introduced a new IonE “Impact Goal” that the Energy Transition Lab would be championing within the IonE Community: Minnesota can be a model for a low-carbon economy that benefits people and the environment.

Two additional Impact Goals were announced at the same event: Safe Drinking Water (By Kate Brauman) and Sustainable Land-Use Planning (By Eric Lonsdorf). To learn more about the IonE Impact Goals, read about them here!

Passing the clean energy baton: MESA joins the Clean Grid Alliance

November 21, 2018Andrew ButtsETL Blog, FeaturedComments Off on Passing the clean energy baton: MESA joins the Clean Grid Alliance

From the Institute on the Environment blog, Grace Becker details how MESA (Midwest Energy Storage Alliance) has transitioned from the Energy Transition Lab to the Clean Grid Alliance (formerly Wind on the Wires). Read more here!

It’s akin to a moment every parent faces, says Energy Transition Lab Project Manager Barb Jacobs: letting go of a program or initiative, incubated and fostered inside of academia, to make its own impact in the world. It can be hard to let go, but with the right foundation and the right partners, it’s a transition that unleashes tremendous potential.

Critical Minerals and the Politics of Clean Energy Production

November 15, 2018Andrew ButtsEvents, FeaturedComments Off on Critical Minerals and the Politics of Clean Energy Production

Join the Energy Transition Lab for a thought-provoking presentation by IonE Visiting Scholar and Macalester College Professor Roopali Phadke on critical minerals and the politics of clean energy production.

One of the grand challenges of the Anthropocene is to balance our global dream to electrify everything with the brutal fact that clean energy technologies depend on metals mined using nearly medieval techniques around the globe. This presentation examines the politics of securing critical minerals for climate solutions, in the context of a growing trade war with China. Dozens of new precious and rare earth mines are being prospected throughout the US to met the metal needs for electric vehicles, solar and wind technologies. These mines have also met growing opposition from Minnesota to Texas as communities express their concern for the devastating local contamination that might result. Roopali will discuss how we might solve this green energy paradox and the kinds of alternatives that are being promoted outside of the US.

Bio for Dr. Phadke
Roopali Phadke is a Professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College and a Visiting Scholar at IonE this Fall. Her teaching and research focus on energy and climate policy, citizen science, community based research and sustainable development initiatives. She is currently the principal investigator on a multiyear US National Science Foundation study titled “Mining Futures”. With her Macalester colleague Christie Manning, she also directed a NOAA funded project on diversity and deliberation in urban climate adaptation called Ready & Resilient, which received a 2016 award from the Climate Adaptation Partnership and a 2018 Minnesota Campus Compact Presidents’ Award. Roopali also serves on several local nonprofit boards including with Northern Lights/Northern Spark, Climate Generation and the Water Bar.

University of Minnesota Solar Development Roadmap

October 10, 2017Megan ButlerFeatured, UncategorizedComments Off on University of Minnesota Solar Development Roadmap

University of Minnesota Campus Development Roadmap

Solar energy provides Universities with the opportunities to expand experiential learning and research, diversity and increase the resiliency of campus infrastructure, engage alumni, donors and prospective students/faculty, advance sustainability goals, and enjoy monetary savings. In 2015, the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab created the SUN Delegation with guidance from MREA and Institute on the Environment. Between 2015 and 2017, the Delegation worked with University staff and faculty to identify pathways to invest in solar energy. These efforts were an instrumental catalyst in encouraging University decision makers to invest in solar. Since the SUN Delegation was formed in 2015 the University has taken the following steps to invest in solar:

Community Solar Gardens (CSG): In 2016, the University subscribed to two megawatts (MW) of solar power from a CSG developed by Geronimo Energy. This investment will save the University approximately $800,000 and offset ~55,300 metric tons of greenhouse gases over 25 years. In 2017, UMN subscribed to a total of 22.5 additional MW. The additional subscriptions are expected to produce 1,095,187,000 kWh of electricity and generate $35,661,070 in savings over 25 years.

On-Site Solar: Ameresco, Inc will install 2.255 MW of solar panels on the Twin Cities campus. The University’s new Bell Museum will also include several small educational solar arrays. Delegation students also developed a transportable solar testbed that students will be able to use on campus.

Duluth Campus Student Services Fee:  UMD students successfully petitioned and received $100,000 from the Duluth Campus Student Services Fee and another $50,000 from UMD’s Revolving Loan Fund. The funds will be used to install an 11kW PV array on campus in 2016.

Xcel Energy Renewable Connect: UMN recently signed up to participate in Xcel Energy’s program, which allows ratepayers to subscribe to energy produced from wind and solar.

The University recognizes this as a step forward towards sustainability and a wise financial investment.

Benefits of Solar

In addition these investments are expected to have a number of benefits over time:

Cost Savings:  Financial viability was a major factor that stakeholders at the University considered when deciding whether or not to invest in solar. The University expects to enjoy a positive ROI on solar investments. In addition, diversifying its energy portfolio allows the University to improve its resilience against foreseen and unforeseen energy price changes that may occur in the future.

Sustainability: Encouraging solar on campus has provided valuable opportunities to improve the University of Minnesota’s leadership in sustainability. The University of Minnesota recognizes climate change as one of the grand challenges humanity will have to overcome in the 21st century and is dedicated to research and is “driven to discover” new knowledge and solutions for the world. Renewable energy technology, combined with energy reduction strategies, have a huge potential to mitigate climate change without sacrificing our quality of life.

Educational Value: Solar arrays will advance research and education at the University. Data produced from a solar array and weather stations will allow researchers to create and enhance photovoltaic system models. The solar arrays would also allow educational site visits for classes and student groups across the University. In addition, this work has helped to make University of Minnesota a pioneer in university solar investment. For example, there are no case studies in existence of other universities who have a CSG subscription of more than one MW. The University of Minnesota is a pioneer in this endeavor.

Support for Research: Participation in the Solar Endowment program provided additional resources and legitimacy to students and faculty interested in solar. For example, students encouraged the University to consider opportunities for solar projects aimed at generating low carbon energy while providing valuable pollinator habitat. 

Positive Public Image: Solar investment will increase the visibility of the University’s position as a leading institution on clean energy and combating climate change. While efforts such as energy efficiency and the CHP project have also had a tremendous effect on the campus’ carbon emissions, the visibility of solar panels will help the University to demonstrate a public commitment to sustainability. This could potentially help the University recruit sustainability-minded students and donors.

The University of Minnesota Campus PV Development Roadmap describes the process that UMN students, faculty and staff undertook to investigate and invest in solar. The SUN Delegation compiled this roadmap to guide other higher education institutions considering a path to solar.

Read the Campus Roadmap



Modernizing Minnesota’s Grid: An Economic Analysis of Energy Storage Opportunities

Energy Storage Paired with Solar Found to Be More Cost Effective in Minnesota Today than Natural Gas Peaking Plants

As federal policy on renewable energy is being rolled back, a new UMN-led report finds that when environmental benefits are considered combined energy storage and solar arrays can be a more cost-effective alternative in Minnesota – implementable today – to natural gas peaking plants, which are fired up only to meet peak demand.

It also shows that increasing the deployment of energy storage combined with renewable energy would help Minnesota meet its statutory goal of 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050 sooner and at a lower cost than other technologies.

The report, “Modernizing Minnesota’s Grid: An Economic Analysis of Energy Storage Opportunities,” is the result of months-long effort led by the Energy Transition Lab (ETL) at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Lessons learned could also be applied to other Midwest states that are in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) footprint.

“Energy storage is a linchpin for Minnesota: It has the potential to reduce our system costs, increase electric grid resiliency, and even decrease greenhouse gas emissions in our broader coal-dependent region,” said Ellen Anderson, director of the Energy Transition Lab. “While the federal government questions the reliability of renewable energy, states like Minnesota are stepping up to show it’s possible to connect renewables and storage to reduce both costs and greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining a reliable grid.”

Input from dozens of Minnesota energy experts laid the foundation for the analysis and final report.   ETL convened more than 60 stakeholders, including representatives from utilities, energy technology companies, nonprofits and government, in two Energy Storage Strategy Workshops starting in 2016 to assess the opportunities for energy storage in Minnesota and at MISO. Participants explored whether and how energy storage could be used to help Minnesota achieve its energy policy objectives, and enable greater system efficiency, resiliency and affordability. Project collaborators Strategen Consulting and Vibrant Clean Energy conducted the use-case and system-wide modeling for the analysis, with input from MISO.

In addition to showing that storage plus solar already could be more cost effective than peaking gas plants, including environmental benefits, the analysis shows that the deployment of storage in Minnesota is projected to increase the use of low-cost renewable energy generation dispatched in MISO and to reduce the need for expensive transmission investments.

Furthermore, it shows that as standalone storage becomes more economic, it will be able to compete with and displace new gas combustion turbines installed to meet peak demand. Beyond 2022, storage was found to be more cost effective than a simple cycle gas-fired peaking plant for meeting Minnesota’s capacity needs.

Connexus, Minnesota’s largest distribution cooperative, was a participant in the workshops and is already pursuing procurement of a 20MW, 40MWh energy-storage system. It will be one of largest storage projects of its kind in the Midwest. According to Connexus, responses to its Request for Proposals have been encouraging, with prices even more competitive than anticipated.

“We have been assessing energy storage to understand its potential benefits to our distribution system and members. Just like solar PV, with continuing drop in storage pricing, it is now becoming cost effective in specific applications,” said Brian Burandt, Vice President of Power Supply and Business Development at Connexus. “While we expect broad applications will be enabled with ongoing cost reductions and performance enhancements, we believe the technology is ready today for application on our system. That will save our member-owners and Minnesotans on electric costs, but in tandem, facilitate renewable energy growth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The energy storage planning process was spearheaded by ETL and the Minnesota Energy Storage Alliance (MESA), with support from the Energy Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Carolyn Foundation, AES Energy Storage, General Electric, Next Era Energy Resources, Mortenson Construction, Great River Energy and Strategen Consulting.

Wind and solar energy projects could bring 5,000 new jobs to rural Minnesota: Energy Transition Lab report measures the impact of federal and state policies to expand renewable energy

November 15, 2016Megan ButlerFeatured1

Source: Centre for Alternative Technology. (CC BY 2.0)

Minnesota has undergone a remarkable transformation in its energy landscape over the past decade. Coal, once the dominant fuel source for Minnesota’s electric utilities, has given way to new types of energy resources — wind and solar among them. While Minnesota’s state energy policies have been a large driver in the shift from fossil fuels to renewables, the federal Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit have played a major role in shaping the state’s clean energy economy while keeping rates affordable for utility customers, according to a new report from the Energy Transition Lab.

The report “analyzes real proposed projects, not theoretical ones,” says Ellen Anderson, ETL’s executive director. “Extension of federal policies for wind and solar development are helping Minnesota residents, businesses and schools save on their energy bills and procure locally-produced wind and solar energy,” says Anderson.

Among the report’s highlights:

  • The clean energy economy is continuing to expand in Minnesota, providing low-cost energy, creating jobs and economic impact.
  • Federal and state policies, especially extension of the Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit, are helping Minnesota see significant new renewable energy projects, jobs, ratepayer savings and economic benefits.
  • Modeling shows that planned additions of wind and solar projects in the state will result in approximately $7.09 billion in direct investment, over 5,000 jobs related to construction alone and 3,987 megawatts of newly installed energy capacity.
  • Distributed generation of solar energy has almost doubled in the past two years, with businesses citing the ITC as a major driver in their success.

“These projects will not only expand renewable energy in Minnesota, they will create more than 5,000 jobs and over $7 billion in direct economic impact in 18 mostly rural Minnesota counties,” says Anderson.

Read the Report

Minnesota Energy Storage Strategy Workshop

November 3, 2016Megan ButlerEvents, Featured, MESAComments Off on Minnesota Energy Storage Strategy Workshop
Photo Credit:

Energy Storage System Photo Credit: Portland General Electric (CC BY-ND 2.0)


In September the Energy Transition Lab convened and hosted an informal Energy Storage Strategy Workshop in partnership with the Energy Foundation and a number of key local and national storage and utility industry leaders. Workshop partner and co-facilitator, Strategen Consulting, provided technical assistance and case studies of storage projects from around the country and is working to analyze specific energy storage use cases in Minnesota.

The goal of the workshop was to identify and prioritize key electric power sector challenges in Minnesota which can potentially be addressed cost-effectively by energy storage. Additionally, the workshop served to inform Minnesota stakeholders about various grid services energy storage can provide such as reliability, peak shaving, efficiency, flexibility, power quality, and renewable energy enhancement.

The workshop was the first of its kind in the nation, bringing together a diverse set of key Minnesota energy ecosystem stakeholders in an informal, small group meeting format to form hypotheses for how energy storage can be locally deployed across electric power sector silos, and to develop methodologies and approaches to evaluate its cost-effectiveness. The Energy Transition Lab and Strategen Consulting envision this informal approach as a potential model that can be expanded to other states looking to evaluate if and how energy storage can be integrated into their electric power sector.

The workshop included several presentations on energy storage which can be accessed below:

See the resources below for additional information:


University of Minnesota Buys Community Solar Subscription

October 28, 2016Megan ButlerETL Blog, FeaturedComments Off on University of Minnesota Buys Community Solar Subscription

The University of Minnesota is tapping into a new source of power. With approval from the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents last week, the U’s Twin Cities campus will purchase two megawatts of community solar garden subscriptions from Minneapolis-based Geronimo Energy, LLC.

“This is an important step for the University and our sustainability efforts,” said Shane Stennes, Director of Sustainability. “We anticipate significant savings of nearly $800,000 over the 25 year contract while supporting the development of new renewable energy resources in the State of Minnesota.”

A community solar garden is a centralized, shared solar electricity facility connected to the energy grid that has multiple subscribers. Currently being built in Dakota County, the community solar garden will produce electricity and renewable energy certificates to be provided to Xcel Energy. The University pays Geronimo fees based on the amount of the subscription and the actual production from the solar garden. The University receives credits from Xcel on the University’s electric bill based upon the production of the solar garden and the University’s subscription share of the garden.

The University has been exploring renewable energy opportunities as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of fossil fuels. Most recently, this work has focused on accessing the emerging Minnesota solar energy market.

In 2015, the University hired Eutectics®, a local clean energy advisor, to assist the University in assessing risk and determining the financial feasibility of purchasing solar electricity through various mechanisms. At the same time, the University’s Energy Transition Lab and Institute on the Environment collaborated with three other Midwestern universities and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association on a U.S. Department of Energy–funded project called “The Solar Endowment: A PV Investment Roadmap for U.S. Universities and Foundations.” The project created teams of students that worked with University staff and faculty to evaluate solar potential, to develop financial models for solar, and to organize campus outreach.

The University is currently pursuing other renewable options in addition to the community solar subscription. Recently, the institution submitted a letter of support to the Public Utilities Commission for Xcel Energy’s Renewable*Connect pilot program. The proposed program will allow Xcel customers to designate that a portion of their electricity come from a blend of wind and solar resources. Later this month, the University is also releasing a request for proposals for on-campus solar installations at four of its campuses.

Photo Credit: Marufish (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Duluth’s Energy Future

August 12, 2016Megan ButlerETL Blog, Events, FeaturedComments Off on Duluth’s Energy Future

Duluth Energy Future Photo

Over the past year, the Energy Transition Lab has been involved in research regarding Duluth and Northeast Minnesota’s Energy Future. By integrating renewables such as bioenergy and solar along with Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems and energy efficiency into Northeast Minnesota’s existing energy system, the region will be able to increase local resiliency while also having positive impacts on the local economy and environment. In total, this research included bioenergy, solar, energy efficiency, district energy systems and CHP projects to show the pathways that could be involved in developing a truly integrated hybrid energy system.

In September, 2016 Ellen Anderson and Research Assistant Megan Butler traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to present the Energy Transition Lab's work on Duluth's Energy Future at the Energy Policy Institute's 6th Annual Energy Policy Research Conference.

In September, 2016 Ellen Anderson and Research Assistant Megan Butler traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to present the Energy Transition Lab’s work on Duluth’s Energy Future at the Energy Policy Institute’s 6th Annual Energy Policy Research Conference.

The full Duluth’s Energy Future Report is composed of chapters focusing upon three main priority areas which were identified after an extensive stakeholder engagement process in Northeast Minnesota:

  1. An Economic Modeling of Proposed Biomass and Solar Opportunities in Northeast Minnesota 
    Read More
    Working with the Labovitz School of Business and Economics Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the Energy Transition Lab utilized an IMPLAN analysis to model the economic impacts of clean energy projects in the region. This research shows that transitioning from fossil fuels to local and regionally-sourced bioenergy and other clean energy resources has the potential to create jobs and economic growth in the city of Duluth and the heavily forested northeast “Iron Range” region of Minnesota.
  2. Strategies for Transforming Building Stock to Zero Energy 
    Read More
    Partnering with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, we developed a prototype for measuring the impact of energy efficiency measures on public buildings. Using this model we demonstrated how to transform an existing public building into a Net Zero Energy/Carbon building. This research allowed us to provide building owners with actionable, cost-effective strategies for reducing the energy footprint of existing building stock. Using this experience, we worked with local partners to develop recommendations for using energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to transform the existing building stock in Duluth.
  3. Combined Heat and Power Barriers and Opportunities in Northeast Minnesota. 
    Read More
    CHP is far more efficient than conventional power production, which wastes up to 60% of the energy value of the fuel. If we can capture the heat or thermal energy released during electricity production, it can be a valuable energy resource instead of being released to the atmosphere as wasted heat. Through interviews with organizations that have recently converted to CHP in Minnesota as well as organizations in Northeast Minnesota currently considering CHP, the Energy Transition Lab evaluated and developed recommendations for the legal, regulatory, siting, and other platforms that will enable CHP’s development. 

Read the Full Report

Together, these three areas of research serve to provide a valuable resource for the City of Duluth and Northeast Minnesota to engage key stakeholders in a conversation about how they envision Northeast Minnesota’s energy future. This research will help the city of Duluth take some transformational steps towards a cleaner, more sustainable energy system. In this way Duluth, a blue-collar, industrial, coal-dependent, and extreme climate city in America’s heartland, can also serve as a model for energy transition in the United States by showing that it is possible to transition to cleaner energy systems and benefit the local economy.

Cover Photo Credit:  Jim Brekke

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