Farm Horizons, October 2014

Largest Minnesota solar energy project planned for local land

By Liz Hackenmueller

Minnesota farmers depend on the sun to power their livelihood, and in two years, it may be powering their homes and communities through the largest solar energy project in the state.

As many as 24 new solar energy facilities are planned for rural Minnesota in 16 counties, including Wright and McLeod, as part of the Aurora Solar Project, developed by Geronimo Energy.

“Anytime when we have a change in land use, we weigh the change from tillable land,” said Sean Riley, planning and zoning administrator for Wright County

Geronimo Energy is a utility-scale wind and solar energy developer based in Edina, with active wind farms in Minnesota and a development pipeline of wind and solar projects in various stages of development throughout the Midwest with an aggregate nameplate capacity exceeding 3,000 megawatts of clean energy – roughly enough to power 1 million American homes, according to its website.

The Aurora Solar Project is a 100 megawatt (MW) energy and capacity resource project for Xcel Energy. The project is planned to be fully operational by fall 2016.

Helping to generate that 100 MW of power will be the Lester Prairie Facility and the Montrose Facility.

Combined, the Lester Prairie and Montrose facilities would reduce Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions by 8,676 metric tons annually and power 1,309 homes, according to Geronimo Energy.

The Montrose and Lester Prairie facilities were identified based on their proximity to an Xcel substation, available land, and limited environmental and land-use constraints, according to Geronimo Energy.

The Lester Prairie Facility is proposed to be up to a 3.5 MW facility, including 30 acres of facility land control and 26 acres of preliminary development area. It is located in Winsted Township, northeast of the intersection of State Hwy. 7 and McLeod County Road 9.

The City of Lester Prairie is already familiar with solar energy, and is planning its own solar project at the wastewater treatment plant this year.

“It is environmentally clean, and it’s nice to get energy from the sun instead of burning gas or oil,” said Eric Angvall, Lester Prairie resident and city council member. Angvall installed solar panels on the roof of the local hardware store he owns. “Last year I ended up producing enough power to cover all my electrical needs,” Angvall said.

The Montrose Facility (as named in the project), is located in Woodland Township, near Montrose, and as proposed, includes 37 acres of facility land control and 35 acres of preliminary development area. It would generate up to 4 MW.

These proposed numbers may vary based on outcomes of additional engineering and environmental studies.

According to Geronimo Energy, there should be no effect on farming or livestock, other than the use of land.

“This is a pretty benign project. You put up panels. There is no manufacturing or people,” said Riley regarding any impact concerns to the local community.

There will be limited lighting for maintenance and safety, and limited sound created by the inverters, transformers, and trackers during movement. This sound will dissipate within a few hundred feet, according to Geronimo Energy.

Project approval and construction impact

Due to the scale of the project across the state, it is being approved by the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, and does not need to go through local government channels for approval. However, there has been information sharing, and feedback has been gathered at the local level.

“There have been a lot of meetings, so the local people know what’s going on,” said Riley.

Geronimo Energy is filing a purchased power agreement with the Minnesota Public Utility Commission (PUC). It expects the commission to approve the contract in the next two or three months, and then it will seek a state site permit. Assuming all goes as planned, the permit should be issued in May 2015.

After the permit is acquired, the final engineering plans will be completed and construction will begin. Each individual facility will take between four and nine months to complete, with the entire project completed by fall 2016.

Overall, the Aurora project is expected to create approximately 750 construction and construction-related jobs during its installation, and up to 30 full-time equivalents for the maintenance and operations of the facilities, according to Geronimo Energy.

A groundbreaking partnership with Xcel Energy

The state of Minnesota has been moving towards renewable energy sources through mandated controls and targets for energy producers.

This laid the groundwork for the Aurora Solar Project to be considered as one of three bids for meeting Xcel Energy’s future needs.

An administrative judge reviewed the bids and recommended the project to the state PUC. The PUC voted 4-0 to move forward with Aurora Solar in March 2014.

Xcel Energy owned 77 generating plants in 2013. Only four of them were solar, with 27 natural gas plants and 26 hydro plants.

The four solar plants generated 42 MW of summer net dependable capacity, while the 27 natural gas plants generated 6,758 MW, and the 13 coal plants generated the most, at 7,597 MW, according to Xcel Energy’s website.

The Aurora Solar project aims to triple Xcel’s solar output by adding an additional 100 MW.

Pros and cons of solar

Solar energy is a renewable source of energy, as it is powered by the sun, rather than fossil fuels, coal or other nonrenewable energy sources.

Because it depends on the sun, it is environmentally friendly and does not cause pollution while providing the energy power. However, there are some emissions associated with the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of solar systems.

It also has an advantage over other renewable energy sources, like wind, because it is quiet and there are no loud moving parts. But, similar to wind power, solar does require significant space to build the power facilities, and needs a system for storing energy when needed.

While solar energy facilities can be more expensive to build on the front end, they have a useful life in excess of 30 years, according to Geronimo Energy.

The initial contract for the Aurora Solar project will be 20 years. After 20 years, the project can either be redeveloped, put back into agricultural use, or contracted for additional energy generation, according to Geronimo Energy.

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