Earlier this year, a major Minnesota construction company announced an agreement with the solar developer SunShare, LLC  to collaborate on future projects in the budding community solar garden market.

It should come as no surprise that M.A. Mortenson Company would want a piece of the community solar action, as it has quietly become one of the nation’s leading builders of solar installations.

The company’s solar staff has increased from dozens to hundreds over the past three years, a clear reflection of the industry’s skyrocketing growth.

Solar adds to the company’s growing renewable energy workload, from wind turbines (9,000 turbines producing 15,000 megawatts of power) to transmission infrastructure (33 power line projects).

While Mortenson has agreed to build Sunshare projects in Minnesota the arrangement does not preclude it from working with other developers, said Trent Mostaert, general manager of the Renewable Energy Groups. “We want to help developers build as much solar as possible in Minnesota.”

The gardens will all be significantly smaller than Mortenson’s largest project to date, the 597 MW Solar Star I and II in California, the biggest solar photovoltaic (PV) farm in the world. The 4,700 acre site required 85 miles of roads to install 1.7 million panels.

Other big projects include the 400 MW Alamo project being developed by OCI Solar Power outside San Antonio. Part of the project features the world’s largest use of dual-tracking panel technology, which follow the sun to optimize energy production of the panels, he said.

Another well-publicized project was the 30 MW Alamosa Solar Generating Project in Colorado that deploys panels that follow the sun’s movement and lenses that concentrate light energy 500 times.

Mortenson also built one of the larger solar farms in Minnesota in 2009 at St. John’s University. The facility’s 1,800 panels have a 400 kilowatt capacity. The installation taught Mortenson a great deal about siting panels correctly and executing larger projects, Mostaert said.

The company’s website points to 23 solar projects, the latest completed or under construction in California, Texas and Colorado. The list will likely include a Minnesota project or two as Xcel Energy, Inc. begins announcing which solar garden proposals have been approved.

It was that background that looked appealing to Sunshare’s founder and CEO David Amster-Olszewski. Mortenson “has some of the best people I’ve worked with in the industry,” he said.

“We wanted to partner with a firm that has strong roots in Minnesota, that could help boost the local economy, along with helping us to deliver clean power to thousands of residents and businesses in Minnesota,” Amster-Olszewski said in an email.

Having a major solar installer in the state is important as community solar and utility-scale solar projects begin to take shape.

“It’s great to have them in Minnesota,” said John Kearney, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. “Having one of the biggest solar installers in the country here will help us develop the industry, which is expected to grow from $150 million today to $1 billion in three years.”

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