University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
Energy Transition Lab

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.

University of Minnesota Buys Community Solar Subscription

October 28, 2016Megan ButlerFeatured, NewsComments 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 ButlerEvents, Featured, NewsComments 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 
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    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. 
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    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

Duluth’s Energy Future: Economic Modeling of Proposed Biomass and Solar Initiatives

May 27, 2016Megan ButlerNewsComments Off on Duluth’s Energy Future: Economic Modeling of Proposed Biomass and Solar Initiatives

In early 2015, several dozen community leaders from Duluth’s city government, local businesses, electric utility company, nonprofit organizations, and the University of Minnesota Duluth participated in a charrette to determine an Energy Future Vision for the city. The goal of the charrette was to capture “the ambitions and concerns” of the key stakeholders, with relevant economic, social, environmental, [and] sustainability aspects.” One of the group’s priority conclusions was the need to understand jobs and economic development impacts of different energy options. They asked the Energy Transition Lab to help Duluth analyze the economic and jobs implications of more locally produced energy from biomass and solar energy. The Energy Transition Lab partnered with UMD’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) to model the potential economic impact of of five proposed projects on Northeast Minnesota. Each of the five projects was selected based on local feasibility and interest. Projects selected for modeling included the following:

  1. The Grand Marais Biomass District Heating System
  2. The Duluth Energy Systems Plant Retrofit and Biomass Conversion
  3. A Torrefaction Processing Plant
  4. Two Biorenewable Chemical Production Plants
  5. The Installation of Solar Power Production Arrays in the Region

These five projects, were they to occur, could represent a significant increase in the use and production of renewable energy in the Arrowhead region.  Four of the five projects included in the analysis involve the use of biomass as a fuel source or feedstock.  The total economic impacts from the construction of these four projects could support nearly 1,600 jobs in the eight-county region, an additional $83 million in labor income, and would contribute roughly $154 million in value-added spending to the region’s Gross Regional Product (GRP). The combined effects for a typical year of operations from the four projects would equate to more than 1,000 new jobs in the eight-county study area, an additional $54 million in wages, benefits, and proprietor income, and an $80 million contribution to the region’s GRP.

Read The Full Report

Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Forestry  (CC BY: 2.0)

Watch Catching The Sun, A Documentary About the Race to Clean Energy, May 26th in Minneapolis

May 20, 2016Megan ButlerFeatured, NewsComments Off on Watch Catching The Sun, A Documentary About the Race to Clean Energy, May 26th in Minneapolis

Catching the Sun
Come see Catching the Sun, a documentary about the race to clean energy, in Minneapolis on Thursday  May 26. Catching the Sun tells the story of the global energy transition from the perspective of workers and entrepreneurs building solutions to income inequality and climate change with their own hands. The documentary is coming to Minneapolis as part of its National Screening Tour which aims to spark new conversations in over 30 cities across the United States! 

Time: Thursday, May 26 7:00PM – 8:28PM

Location: St Anthony Main Theater. 115 SE Main St, Minneapolis, MN, US, 55414

Get Your Tickets here: Read more →

Ellen Anderson to Speak at Sabo Symposium: “Climate Change After Paris: How do we Get There?”

March 7, 2016Megan ButlerEvents, NewsComments Off on Ellen Anderson to Speak at Sabo Symposium: “Climate Change After Paris: How do we Get There?”

Ellen Anderson to Speak at Sabo Symposium: “Climate Change After Paris: How do We Get There?”

Energy Transition Lab Executive Director & Adjunct Associate Professor Ellen Anderson will speak at Sabo Symposium, Augsburg College, Minneapolis at a forum entitled, “Climate Change After Paris: How do We Get There?” The forum will be held Tuesday, March 8, at 7 pm, at Hoversten Chapel, 625 22nd Avenue South, Augsburg College, Minneapolis.

Other panelists include Anne Hunt, Environmental Policy Director, City of St. Paul, and Amy Fredregill, Resource Planning and Strategy Manager, Xcel Energy. The panel will be moderated by Sabo Center Senior Fellow Tom Berg. The forum is named after former Congressman Martin Olav Sabo. The panel will discuss the Paris Cllimate Change Conference and offer thoughts on how we take action.

Read Ellen Anderson’s faculty profile.

Cover Photo Credit: jmdigne (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Free Public Seminar on Community Solar

January 13, 2016Megan ButlerEvents, NewsComments Off on Free Public Seminar on Community Solar

Community Solar Gardens are centrally-located solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that provide electricity to participating subscribers. A free public seminar hosted by Clean Energy Resource Teams will provide participants with information and resources to better understand community solar gardens (

Time: 3:304:30 p.m Wednesday, January 27.

Place: 105 Cargill Building, University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus.

Community solar projects have been enabled by the Minnesota legislature and provide and opportunity for individual participation in larger scale solar. Called Community Solar Gardens, these are centrally located solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that provide electricity to participating subscribers. The Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) provide consumers with resources to better understand community solar garden projects and implement community based clean energy projects. .

In this free public seminar, CERTS Director Lissa Pawlisch will provide an overview of community solar gardens and resources available to consumers.

Photo Credit: Westmill Solar Park (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Climate Adaptation Conference January 28th

January 5, 2016Megan ButlerEvents, NewsComments Off on Climate Adaptation Conference January 28th

The 2nd Annual Climate Adaptation Conference will be held on January 28th in Minneapolis. The conference is organized by University of Minnesota’s Water Resource Center and is open to the public. For more information about the Climate Adaption Conference visit the Water Resource Center Website or see the conferences Climate Adaption Conference Agenda.

Register Today

The conference will include panels involving corporate leaders, tribal communities, and local mayors. Breakout sessions will involve themes such as: emergency management and climate adaptation, climate change communication, local foods and climate change, energy, and climate impacts on water resources.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY 2.0)

Watch The Reflections From The Paris Climate Talks Discussion

December 17, 2015Megan ButlerEvents, NewsComments Off on Watch The Reflections From The Paris Climate Talks Discussion


Photo Credit: Climate Generation Reflections From the Paris Climate Talks

On Wednesday Night over 100 people packed the Reflections from the Paris Climate Talks Forum hosted by Climate Generation at The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.. A full web recording of the post-COP21 panel discussion can be found here.

 Watch The Discussion

Read more →

Addressing Climate and Peace in Paris and Minnesota

December 11, 2015Megan ButlerEnergy Transition Blog, Featured, NewsComments Off on Addressing Climate and Peace in Paris and Minnesota

Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson and two seniors from Macalaster College explored connections between global climate change and peace at  in this editorial which originally appeared as an article on the MINNPOST

Written by: Ellen Anderson, Laura Humes and Kayla Walsh Read more →

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The Energy Transition Lab is a strategic initiative of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment in partnership with the Law School.
Funding for the Energy Transition Lab is primarily provided by the Institute on the Environment. Other funders include McKnight Foundation, Energy Foundation, Carolyn Foundation, US Department of Energy, Wind Energy Foundation and the University of California Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute. Support for energy storage work is provided by the Minneapolis Foundation, Great River Energy, Mortenson Construction, AES Corporation, Next Era Energy Resources, and General Electric. Funders have no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of any manuscript.