'Solar Gardens' Bloom Across Southeast Minnesota

April 3, 2017 12:22 PM

When Paul Betcher's phone rang last year, he had no idea how a rocky patch of land on his farm would turn into a windfall.

Or, perhaps, a little ray of sunlight in his life. The call came from Innovative Power Systems, a Minneapolis-based solar power company that installs solar from rooftops to farm fields, the Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/2mJzpLT ) reported.

"They had seen I had land down here close to the electric line," Betcher said.

The land, a side hill with rocky knolls that wasn't good for much more than cattle pasture, was just the eight acres the company was looking for.

Betcher was leery at first. A nearby wind project had been a financial mess for several area farmers. Now, another energy company was coming with a plan to generate power on his land, telling him it would be a great spot for solar power.

Turns out, it wasn't such a hard sell. The company will lease the land from Betcher for 25 years for more money — "A lot more," Betcher said — than he could ever make off it. In fact, there is an adjoining eight acres he would like to see become a second solar site.

"I've been looking for something to do with that 16 acres," he said. "If I can get the other site, I won't have to have cattle out there anymore."

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade association, Minnesota boasts 372.5 megawatts of solar capacity installed with most of that — 339.8 MW — coming in 2016. That includes installations done for residential, commercial and utility-scale projects, with the vast majority coming in the latter category.

Sean Gallagher, SEIA vice president for state affairs, said the solar power industry has boomed in the past five years, mainly on the plummeting cost of solar panels — the price has dropped 60 percent to 70 percent in the last few years — and good federal and state policies that are designed to help the fledgling industry grow.

On the federal level, tax credits for solar, particularly at the residential level, are a big help, he said. States, however, need to focus on three key policies to help the solar industry grow: one-to-one net-metering standards, good interconnection policies that make it easy and inexpensive to connect solar systems to the grid, and smart renewable portfolio standards, such as community solar gardens.

In the policies that matter, Minnesota is a leader, Gallagher said. "We do hold up Minnesota as an example of what states can do," he said.

And while Minnesota's currently installed solar capacity amounts to just 0.06 percent of the state's electricity needs, that will change as more planned and approved solar comes online in the next year or two. In fact, 2017 looks to be a better year than 2016 and all of that will nearly triple by 2021, the association estimates.

For Minnesota, that success is tied to community solar gardens, which have spurred the growth in utility-scale solar projects, Gallagher said.

"There are a number of states that have utility-scale solar, but only a handful of states that have success community solar programs," he said.

In Southeast Minnesota, several counties have seen big boosts in solar power over the past two years, none more so than Goodhue County, which approved four conditional use permits for utility-scale solar projects in 2016 totaling 9.088 MW. The county has already approved more power for 2017, granting CUPs for one 5 MW project and seven 1 MW projects at its Feb. 21 meeting, said Goodhue County Land Use Management Director Lisa Hanni.

"I know we have one or two more coming at next planning commission meeting," Hanni said.

In 2016-17, Wabasha County added 10 MW thus far.

"We have a CUP that will be considered at the March 27 Planning Commission meeting for a 1 megawatt system ... (near) Oak Center," said Kevin Krause, Wabasha County zoning administrator. "There is one in the City of Wabasha that I believe is 3 megawatts. If the Town of Chester approves two projects next week, Wabasha County will be considering CUP's for the same two sites in April."

None of that, Krause said, has been built yet, so it is not included in the state's solar totals. The 12 MW on the books in Dodge County since 2015 include just 5 MW that have been built and are online. Winona County has approved CUPs for three projects that amount to 11 MW since 2015.

Betcher's site was one of the seven 1 MW projects the Goodhue County board approved in February. At IPS's suggestion, he went to his neighbors first to ask them how they felt about a solar garden growing on his farmland. "There were no real concerns," he said.

That is not always the case. A CUP approved in Goodhue County last May is still facing opposition. While the project has been approved, the wetlands mitigation plan needs the county's OK, and it has given opponents hope to scuttle the project along U.S. Highway 61.

The county board, Hanni said, has asked for financial security that the environmental concerns will be covered, and the technical evaluation panel — a group made up of county officials, the local soils and water district, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Board of Soil and Water Resources — has asked for $105,000 in security.

"Each one's different," Hanni said, referring to the public hearings on solar projects. "We've had a room full of people, or we've had nobody show up." Township residents complain that prime agricultural land is being wasted. Neighbors complain their bucolic rural views are marred.

For the Greenmark Solar project along Highway 61, the complaint is that a peat bog will be ruined or set ablaze when the solar garden is installed.

"This project will be at risk of fire," said Jonathan Peterson at a March 21 board meeting. "There's a reason people who live in peat bogs don't drill holes in there, because of the fire risk."

That is why IPS works so hard to make solar as friendly and available as possible.

"We go to great lengths to be good neighbors," Borell said. That means screening trees for sight lines, showing up to answer questions and, eventually, building enough solar so everyone can benefit.

"People have always wanted solar, but they haven't always been able to afford it," he said. Community solar and the falling price of photovoltaic cells, though, are changing that. "What has changed is it has become more cost effective."

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