Is the Midwest Finally Catching on to Utility-Scale Solar?

August 31, 2016 | 1:26 pm
Sam Gomberg
Senior Analyst

There seems to have been a significant uptick in the number of utility-scale solar projects announced in the Midwest recently—from Michigan to Minnesota , Indiana to Iowa, and even up in Wisconsin. Is this just a one-off bump in activity, or the start of something bigger? Are we actually starting to see the solar revolution spread to the Midwest where wind power has historically been king of renewables?  And if large-scale solar is coming in a big way, are we ready?

Utility-scale solar is starting to gain traction in the Midwest where wind has traditionally been king of renewables.

Utility-scale solar is starting to gain traction in the Midwest where wind has traditionally been king of renewables.

Let’s not sugarcoat it—even as solar has experienced record growth nationally and has become mainstream in many parts of the country, other than a few standouts like Minnesota’s community solar programs, the Midwest has been lagging in its development of solar resources. Up until now, Midwest utilities have pretty much ignored large-scale solar as a resource option.

But if you’ve been reading the headlines lately, you’d get the sense that the tides are shifting. Large, utility-scale projects have been announced in states across the Midwest as utilities seek to take advantage of the federal incentives and prepare for a low-carbon energy future.

The Mid-continent Independent System Operator (MISO), which manages the transmission system and markets for wholesale electricity across much of the Midwest, maintains a project “queue” that gives us a glimpse of things to come. The queue lists projects that have been submitted by developers for connection to the grid. And a look at today’s queue indicates that developers are looking more and more to utility-scale solar (typically characterized by systems 1 mega-watt (MW) and larger) as a cost-effective and low risk means of meeting future energy demand.

As of August 29th, MISO’s queue lists more than 2,300 MW of active utility-scale solar projects in the Midwestern states it serves. The table below breaks that number down by state.

State MW of solar in MISO queue
Illinois 505
Indiana 232
Iowa 250
Michigan 248
Minnesota 734
Missouri 40
Wisconsin 300

It should be noted that MISO’s queue is more an indicator of what developers are thinking, and less an indicator of specific projects that will be built over coming years. Some of these projects won’t make it through all the hurdles to become a reality. But the queue is a good indicator of trends in the electricity sector, and the trend towards utility-scale solar in Midwestern states is hard to deny.

Most of these projects—almost 1,900 MW worth—have entered the queue just since September 2015, revealing a remarkable uptick over the past year in interest in utility-scale solar as a valuable resource to diversify portfolios and move away from carbon-intensive power plants.

utility-scale solar field

As utilities turn to solar to diversify portfolios and prepare for a low-carbon future, we’ll need robust planning and stakeholder engagement to integrate solar resources as successfully as the Midwest is integrating significant and growing amounts of wind power.

As we look ahead to growing interest in utility-scale solar, it begs the question of whether MISO and its member states are ready. The success we’ve had integrating significant (and growing) amounts of wind resources should give us confidence that the integration of large-scale solar can take a similarly smooth path. But, like the MISO’s integration of wind, it doesn’t happen without proper planning and well thought out processes to provide a level playing field that maximizes the benefits that solar can bring to the regional grid and electricity markets. MISO’s annual planning process and various committees and working groups would be well-served to make this a more significant part of their ongoing discussions.

So maybe I’m not imagining it. Utility-scale solar is taking hold here in the Midwest, just as it is in other parts of the nation. And with several more years of tax credits and projections of continued falling prices—combined with the growing acceptance of the need for a low-carbon electricity sector—I expect even greater momentum over the coming years.

Yes, the sun does shine bright here in the Midwest.