(TNS) -- Recent advancements in solar and wind technology mean renewable energy is not only environmentally beneficial but is also becoming economically competitive as a legitimate option for municipal utilities, cooperatives and businesses to use in their mix of energy sources.

The cost for putting solar and wind energy on the electrical grid has been cut in half “and the trend is not over,” said Doug Frederickson, vice president of Blattner Energy, a renewable energy contractor based in Avon. “Economics are driving this.”

Frederickson was one of four individuals from the energy industry who spoke to local business and community leaders Tuesday morning in Willmar about the changing technology, costs and perception of renewable energy.

The technology is changing costs so quickly — especially for wind and solar energy — that utilities and customers have an “unprecedented amount of choice and competition available to them,” said Mike Franklin, from Weber Johnson, a public affairs company in St. Paul, who coordinated the panel discussion, which was hosted by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

In the past, Franklin said, activists were “driving clean energy for environmental reasons and they didn’t care about cost.”

Now, he said, there’s a competitive marketplace on both sides of the discussion.

“On the one hand you have utilities who are trying to balance their customers’ needs with what’s available to them and on the other hand you have suppliers and contractors of wind and solar who are competing with each other to get the cheapest kilowatt hour,” Franklin said.

As that trend continues in the future, utilities will incorporate renewable energy into the energy mix because it’s an affordable option, he said.

And when you toss in the current positive public perception toward renewable energy, more businesses are incorporating solar and wind energy into their business plan as marketing tool to make them more attractive to customers.

The result is that environmentalists and businesses get what they want — affordable energy that’s also good for the environment.

“You get to have your cake and eat it too,” Franklin said.

While assuring members in the audience that the growth in renewable energy isn’t a “war on coal,” panelists agreed that it’s going to be difficult for aging coal plants to be economically competitive in the future when renewable energy is matched with expected growth in electricity fueled by natural gas.

“Coal is really in danger right now,” said Bob Jagusch, from the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association. “Coal is going away and that’s just the way it is.”

Renewable energy is “far more competitive than it’s ever been,” said Jagusch, adding that the MMUA is “agnostic” when it comes to which energy source a utility uses and focuses on helping utilities provide services.

Jagusch said because Minnesota utilities, such as Willmar Municipal Utilities, have added different energy sources into their overall plan over the years, the state will be in better shape than others when it comes to complying with the new federal Clean Power Plan.

Wes Hompe, general manager of the Willmar MUC, said the city’s wind turbines provides about 3 percent of the municipal electricity and 15 percent comes from the local coal power plant. The remainder comes from transmission lines.

Hompe said the goal of the MUC is to provide reliable power at reasonable rates to customers. “They just want the lights to turn on when they flip the switch,” he said.

He said the MUC will continue to use the “all-the-above” strategy for energy sources and continue to meet renewable energy and carbon reduction standards that are set by state and federal regulations.

Wind energy has been the primary renewable energy source in Minnesota but solar is growing.

Jim Losleben, from TenKSolar from Minneapolis, said advancements in storing renewable energy and new solar panel designs that captures northern exposure light even on cloudy days, is making solar energy an increasingly viable option here.

“Solar is here to stay,” said Losleben, who calls solar power an “insurance plan” for utilities and coops to meet customers’ demands. “The solar market growth is strong.”

While there has been growth in renewable energy, Frederickson said people who think renewable energy will make up 20 percent of the country’s energy source by the year 2030 are in “dreamland.”

Along with incorporating renewable energy sources, reducing energy usage is also a key component to meeting environmental and economic goals.

Hompe also said most local business owners have incorporated extensive energy conservation programs and have retrofitted lights and other equipment, which has reduced the overall electrical load at the MUC. “People have become very good at becoming energy efficient,” he said.

©2016 West Central Tribune (Willmar, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.