BY GABE LICHT
FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, MN The Franklin Township Board of Supervisors learned the preliminary plans for three five-megawatt solar gardens that are being proposed within the township during a Feb. 1 meeting.
Reed Richerson, of US Solar, was on hand to answer questions about solar gardens in general, and the solar sites planned for 657 Co. Rd. 30 SE, 3527 Hwy. 12 SE, and 11345 Co. Rd. 17 SE in particular.
“The benefit from Xcel’s standpoint in how they rolled this community solar garden program out is they have companies that are experienced building solar facilities in a very efficient manner,” Richerson said. “ . . . They get predictable energy flowing to the grid, they know when it’s flowing to the grid, and they still satisfy their customers’ demands who want solar energy.”
US Solar began searching for potential solar garden sites in April and May, ultimately locating 19 sites in Xcel’s service territory, including the three in Franklin Township. Criteria for ideal sites included a lack of wetlands, locations not adjacent to neighborhoods or planned future developments, and locations relatively close to substations for easy electricity transmission.
In order to qualify for five-megawatt solar gardens, plans needed to be in the works by fall of 2015.
“In a settlement agreement this past summer, it was agreed you could collocate five different one-megawatt projects together,” Richerson said. “You could only do that until Sept. 25: that’s when you had to get the process started with Xcel.”
Solar gardens in Minnesota utilize fix-tilt solar panels due to the rolling nature of the topography, as opposed to tracking systems that reposition the solar panels based on the sun’s location, which are used in flat areas in California and Arizona.
Solar panels are secured with piers driven 6 to 18 feet into the ground.
“One thing we’re very aware of, that other companies from California aren’t as aware of, is frost up-heave,” Richerson said. “That’s why we use longer piers.”
Solar panels are spaced out and elevated above the ground, so groundskeepers can mow under and around them. They typically reach 10 to 12 feet high, with most ordinances allowing nothing higher than 15 feet.
“We don’t want it too high or it becomes a really efficient sail, and we’ll have to put our piers further into the ground,” Richerson said.
Another potential concern he addressed was glare.
“Is it going to be dangerous to drive if we put it next to a bend in the road? No,” Richerson said. “Solar panels are designed to absorb light. They would be absolutely flunking if they were pushing off a reflection.”
Some solar technology utilizes mirrors, he said, but not the technology that would be used at these sites.
“This technology does not have glare,” Richerson said. “Seventeen states have solar at international airports, including MSP. The FAA has done glare studies. They definitely care about glare. If it’s good for them, I think it will be good for most people.”
What about noise?
“If you’re outside of the fence, you’re not going to hear anything,” Richerson said. “If you go looking for noise, it will be in the inverter. It’s like a refrigerator. There’s not a lot of noise from solar.”
Richerson called a solar garden a good way to preserve farmland for the future because no chemicals are used and, after disking the top couple inches of soil, native grass and pollinator habitat is planted.
US Solar’s sites are typically surrounded by 7-foot, chain-link fences, as long as allowed by ordinance, and are set back from the road and hidden by trees.
Richerson said US Solar’s model is not detrimental to wildlife, and no environmental or wildlife-related issues have been flagged in Minnesota.
The only concrete used in a solar garden is a 6-foot-by-6-foot, 4-inch thick square of concrete under each inverter. That concrete can easily be broken up and removed after it has served its purpose. When a solar garden is decommissioned, the piers are removed, those holes are filled in, and the fence is removed.
“Most ordinances have a requirement for a decommissioning plan,” Richerson said. “We absolutely comply with all of those. Because we’re not building wind turbines with swimming pools of concrete, it’s not hard to pull out.”
The initial contract with Xcel calls for US Solar to deliver electricity to the grid for 25 years. When US Solar leases land, which would be the case in Franklin Township, the contract is for 25 years from the time of construction.
“We like to have options to extend in five-year increments because we believe very strongly there will be continual value, residual value,” Richerson said. “Solar panels aren’t going to be redundant. They’re not going to be obsolete because they’re generating energy.”
While solar energy will continually be upgraded and become more efficient, Richerson estimates it will take 25 years before the space requirement for solar is reduced by even 25 to 35 percent.
Financially speaking, Richerson detailed a federal tax credit that reimburses $3 for every $10 spent on solar energy. Solar energy companies also pay a production tax of .0012 cents per kilowatt hour, which Richerson estimated at $13,000 to $14,000 annually for each five-megawatt solar garden.
In addition to the production tax, solar energy companies pay sales taxes and also create jobs, with the number of solar energy employees growing from 5,000 when Richerson joined the industry to more than 200,000 today.
Will rates go up due to solar? Richerson isn’t sure, but he is optimistic.
“In California and Arizona, you’re not seeing rates go up any more than they have in the past 40 years,” Richerson said.
Customers who receive all their electricity from solar sources can lock in their rates for 25 years.
In Franklin Township, two of the proposed sites are zoned for agriculture, with another zoned residential ag, but is in the process of being rezoned to agriculture.
No action was taken at the Feb. 1 meeting, but US Solar will return and request township approval before seeking a conditional use permit for solar gardens.
Wright County Planning Administrator Sean Riley explained during a planning and zoning meeting that the application will likely be tabled at the county level, pending a site inspection, and that a buffer may be required.
Resident Joe Fake spoke in favor of a buffer, expressing concern that a 40-acre solar garden being proposed in Independence could be within 60 feet of his residence in Franklin Township. He encouraged the township to draft an ordinance that is more strict than the Wright County ordinance, which Riley said could be allowed.
In other business, the board:
• approved paying a $750 fine to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The fine stemmed from an incident in which township employees reportedly sprayed too close to the river and did not have the appropriate equipment and clothing. It was noted that fighting the fine would likely cost more in legal fees.
• gave support to Mike Jensen for a lawn care business at 4036 55th St. SE. Jensen’s application will now go to the county level.
• named the Delano Herald Journal the official newspaper for Franklin Township legal notices, and awarded a bid to Herald Journal Printing to print 1,200 one-year recycling calendars for $924 plus postage.
• hosted a planning and zoning meeting in which Riley reported 11 permits for new, single-family homes in Franklin Township in 2014, and six permits for new, single-family homes in the township in 2015.