- - Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The nation is in the grip of a remarkable deep freeze, but Al Gore and the global-warming caballeros are thinking about the sun. The former vice president tweeted his news over the weekend that “solar energy [is] poised to grow rapidly in Minnesota as steep drop in price undercuts natural gas.” Mr. Gore is enthused by a state administrative law judge’s finding that a local power company must build an array of solar panels instead of a needed power plant fueled by natural gas.

The greens are giddy, proclaiming this the first-ever victory of renewable energy over fossil fuels in a competitive-bidding process. A victory, perhaps, but the bidding was anything but competitive.

Last year, Xcel Energy told the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that its electrical lines would be exhausted in a few years time unless it builds more power-generating plants. Three companies proposed plants generating power by natural gas, one company proposed building an enormous solar-panel farm and one company proposed the “sale of capacity credits.” Judge Eric L. Lipman reviewed the five plans from his St. Paul courtroom, and gave his findings to the Minnesota utilities commission, which will decide which plan makes the most economic sense.

Sensible people would decide based on which plan is likely to provide the best service at the lowest cost to consumers. That a credit-swapping scheme, generating paperwork not power, is among the contenders is evidence this was never meant to be sensible business. Minnesota legislators had stacked the deck by ordering power companies to make 1.5 percent of their retail energy sales from solar panels by the year 2020. It’s easy to win with a law that declares the victor. The solar mandate can be met not by producing electricity, but by paying off “green” energy companies with the purchase of credits.

Judge Lipman was most impressed by Geronimo Energy’s proposal to generate electricity (when the sun is out) through the construction of 20 sprawling solar-panel farms of up to 70 acres each. This wasn’t the best deal by price, but by the lowest “societal cost” in terms of saving the planet from global warming. With temperatures tumbling 17 degrees below zero Wednesday, few Minnesotans would endorse a plan to make the planet colder, though this was a key feature of the solar deal. “Importantly,” the judge said, “the construction and operation of Geronimo’s proposal will not generate carbon dioxide (CO2) or ‘criteria pollutants.’”

Under the proposal, Xcel could sell renewable solar-energy credits to utilities in other states, taking $38 million a year from these government-mandated renewable-energy subsidies. This solar scheme still doesn’t make economic sense, but “represents the lowest risks of noncompliance with state and federal policies, rules, and regulations … . Because Geronimo’s proposed plants would not produce CO2 emissions, they pose few risks of higher future costs from more intensive regulation of carbon pollution.”

Thus, natural gas, the affordable option for Minnesotans, is off-limits because the judge thinks it likely the government would shut down generating by natural gas, as the Obama administration is doing with coal.

But Mr. Gore is wrong again. Solar arrays haven’t become an economic alternative to electricity needs. Power is needed on days cloudy as well as bright. This wasn’t the shining moment for solar energy, but a sad moment for government-by-crony.