On the outskirts of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, Xcel Energy’s High Bridge Generating Station offers an iconic view of the current state of electrical generation in the United States. Opened in 2008 as a replacement for an aging coal plant, the 534-megawatt natural gas facility looms over three solar photovoltaic panels that provide a sculptural element to the site in addition to 9.8 kilowatts of electricity.
In the United States in 2014, PV accounted for around half of a percent of the nation’s electricity production compared with natural gas’s 27%, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Yet if PV seems more ornamental than a serious energy contender, the data over the past two years documenting a dramatic increase in PV generation show a promising rookie ready to compete in the big leagues.
Both natural gas and PV have compelling attributes in an age where concerns over global climate change have led to mounting public and political pressure to reduce carbon emissions. PV is virtually carbon free and for all practical purposes has an endless energy generator in the sun. However, it’s intermittent, while natural gas provides constant baseline energy at nearly half the level of carbon dioxide emissions as coal.