Farm Horizons, April 2016

Solar project proposals popping up throughout the area

By Gabe Licht

Solar energy is becoming more common in Minnesota, and the local area is no exception.

At least 11 solar projects, also called solar gardens, have been proposed or approved in Wright County, plus five in McLeod County. Three solar sites have been approved, but not constructed, in Carver County, with three others being reviewed.

Much of the increase in solar energy demand is driven by a mandate for Xcel Energy to have 1.5 percent of sales from solar energy by 2020, while cooperative electricity companies are also investing in solar.

Third-party companies such as SunShare, US Solar, Geronimo Energy, and Aurora Energy are looking to establish solar gardens in order to sell the energy to Xcel Energy.

Projects could be as large as five-megawatts – about 35 to 50 acres – if they were in the works by the fall of 2015.

“In a settlement agreement this past summer, it was agreed you could collocate five different one-megawatt projects together,” said Reed Richerson, of US Solar. “You could only do that until Sept. 25: that’s when you had to get the process started with Xcel.”

Solar gardens are allowed as a conditional use for agriculturally zoned properties.

“Just like a normal conditional use permit, we take the application from the applicant, fill out the forms, give them the permit back, and let them know they have to go to the township to get a recommendation,” McLeod County Zoning Administrator Larry Gasow said. “The township has a chance to ask questions. If they have concerns, they forward them to the planning commission.”

Gasow said the state of Minnesota requires counties to issue a decision on a solar garden within 60 days of application, though they may request a 60-day waiver from the applicant to allow for more fact-finding.

McLeod County requested additional time to review an application for a solar garden on property south of Highway 7 and four miles west of McLeod County Road 9 in Winsted Township due to concerns from neighbors and the township.

Gasow said he has heard concerns about aesthetics, a possible decline in value for neighboring properties, stray voltage, and the use of prime farmland for a different use.

“Stray voltage won’t electrocute anyone,” said Gerardo Ruiz, of Potentia Energy, which is working with US Solar on projects in the area. “It’s a phenomenon of there being a defect in electrical installation . . . If you build properly, there should be non or nearly zero . . . These are engineering problems that can be measured. The smart thing to do is test for it. If there’s a problem, you solve it.”

Solar energy advocates call a solar garden a good way to preserve farmland for the future because native grass and pollinator habitat is planted on the property and no chemicals are used.

Solar gardens typically have a 25-year lease, and a decommissioning plan with a financial component is required.

“We’re requiring a bond so those investors, after so many years, if they walk away, we are collecting a performance bond in case the county has to pay someone to clean it up and remove panels, the bond we’re asking for is $20,000 per megawatt,” Gasow said.

McLeod County also requires insurance for the site itself.

Some residents take issue with solar gardens being located on agriculturally zoned property.

“That’s commercial application,” a Franklin Township resident said at a recent meeting. “There’s no ag involved. There’s no plants being grown. It’s a business, and it should be zoned commercial.”

Ruiz pointed to state statute that allows counties to zone solar gardens as agricultural.

As far as taxes go, solar energy companies 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. He also detailed a federal tax credit that reimburses $3 for every $10 spent on solar energy.

Residents like Joe Fake have expressed concerns about setbacks. In Wright County, a 60-foot setback is required.

“This massive solar farm could be within 60 feet of a residence?” Fake asked.

Wright County Zoning Administrator Sean Riley said, in Wright County, it could be that close, but solar gardens are not allowed in residential areas.

Galow said many counties are only requiring a 20-foot setback, while the most restrictive requirement he was aware of was 100 feet.

Ruiz said US Solar would consider voluntarily increasing the setbacks. The company also prefers to have a 7-foot fence surrounding its solar gardens, as long as it is allowed by the county.

Two other concerns are glare and noise.

“Solar panels are designed to absorb light,” Richerson said. “They would be absolutely flunking if they were pushing off a reflection.”

“If you’re outside of the fence, you’re not going to hear anything,” Richerson added. “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.”

He said the criteria for ideal sites includes a lack of wetlands, locations not adjacent to neighborhoods or planned future developments, and locations relatively close to substations for easy electricity transmission.

While large solar gardens are being proposed for rural areas, co-ops like Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association and McLeod Cooperative Power have smaller solar projects.

McLeod County Power currently has a community solar garden with 100 solar panels, which is 100 percent sold out to customers, with the ability to construct an additional 50-panel array.

Wright-Hennepin has a 30-kilowatt array, a 32-kilowatt array, and plans for construction of a 150-kilowatt array on about a half-acre of land in the summer. It also built two solar arrays, a total of 330 panels on the roof of the city-owned Rockford City Center Mall and the city’s water tower property, for use by the city of Rockford.

Wright-Hennepin member owners have been supportive of efforts to use more solar energy.

“It’s been 95 percent positive comments,” said Steve Nisbet, the vice president of external relations and power supply at Wright Hennepin. “Mostly, folks are glad we’re doing something with renewable energy. Member owners have expressed they believe it’s part of what we should be doing.”

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