The Coming of the Solar Age & Clean Energy

Carl Nelson
Director of Community Energy, Green Institute

We are slowly moving from the dinosaur fossil age to the solar age, but is it fast enough? Minnesota still gets the vast majority of its energy from fossil fuel sources. As we near the peak of world oil production, we can expect increased price and political volatility. Trends also suggest a peak in natural gas is following closely behind, especially in North America. This will eventually lead to a disruption of our traditional energy sources, perhaps sooner than we expect. Coal is plentiful, but has a heavy global warming toll. Can we really afford to increase our coal production, as industry experts expect?

The good news is that we have made great technological strides since the last energy crisis of the 1970s, and clean energy businesses are one of the fastest growing segments of the economy.

Wind Energy

Commercial-scale wind development sites are the fastest growing energy source in the world. Wind power can now go head-to-head economically with fossil fuel power in high wind production areas.

Solar Energy

Although solar energy is still relatively expensive (20+ cents a kilowatt-hour before incentives), worldwide it is growing at 30% a year. Costs are dropping 4% per year. Furthermore, solar energy is a distributed generation resource — it can be installed practically anywhere, thus avoiding upgrades to transmission and distribution infrastructure. Solar energy only needs to reach the retail price hurdle to be competitive — about equal to 6-8 cents/kilowatt-hour in MN — versus the wholesale price of 3-4 cents/kilowatt-hour.

Another type of solar use is solar hot water systems. The sun directly heats the water instead of producing electricity to heat the water. This type of hot water heating system can be even more economical than solar panel systems. Programs in other states, such as the Solar Hot Water Utility, have been very successful in outfitting homes with these systems.


These are fuels made from corn, soybeans, canola or other Midwestern crops. The potential of corn ethanol and other biofuels are limited by land constraints to perhaps 15% of total U.S. energy, while fuel efficient cars and public transport have muchgreater potential for reducing fossil fuel.

Support Clean Energy

What can we do about supporting clean energy?

  • Reduce gas usage by use of more efficient vehicles, public transport and biking.
  • Switch to long-lasting, color-corrected compact florescent lighting to cut lighting energy consumption by up to 75 percent.
  • Set up a home energy audit to identify other cost-effective energy savings strategies.
  • Participate in the growing “green building” movement. It is possible to reduce energy use of buildings by 50% or more through high performance building techniques like super-insulating, energy star lighting and appliances, passive solar and ground-source (geothermal) heat pump systems.
  • Help to start a public program, such as a Solar Hot Water Utility or other community energy program.
  • Smart steps like this to reduce energy use is the first step in preparing for the solar age.
Read Up

Beyond Oil, by Kenneth S. Deffeyes 2005.

The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling, by Daniel D. Chiras 2002.

Act Locally

Minnesota State Energy Office
(click on “energy info center”)

Clean Energy Age

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