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Willmar Utilities Commission rejects solar project

Willmar Municipal Utilities has indicated to the Environmental Protection Agency that it is pursuing renewable energy projects, including solar, as part of efforts to reduce air quality impacts. Failure to approve the solar project could endanger negotiations with EPA regarding the agency's efforts to tighten Willmar's power plant air quality emissions requirements. Tribune file photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission this week rejected a proposal to construct a solar energy project at the site of the utility's two wind turbines on the north edge of the city.

Commission Vice President Dave Baker said the project looked good from the standpoint of renewable energy, looked like a fair return and thought it was a good investment long term. But Baker cited a number of issues that the commission needs to take care of first.

He said the utility is waiting for approval for the proposed $10 million power plant improvement project. Also, he said the utility has a general manager position that's in question and a lot of internal items that need to be cleaned up before the commission moves forward with a large investment.

"The money is there to do this with, but we just don't feel that we need one more distraction in the operations to take our eye off the ball, to make the utilities operate the best they can,'' Baker said in explaining the commission's decision.

However, failure to approve the project could endanger negotiations with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over the utility's power plant air quality permit that expires at the end of 2012, the commissioners were told this week.

Jon Folkedahl, the utility's director of electrical production, recommended the project for numerous reasons. Among those, he said, is that Willmar has represented to EPA that the utility is pursuing renewable energy projects, including solar, as part of efforts to reduce air quality impacts.

Folkedahl said failure to approve the project could endanger negotiations with EPA regarding the agency's efforts to tighten Willmar's air quality emissions requirements.

A company, tenKsolar of Minneapolis, proposed to construct a 600-kilowatt solar electric generating facility on property located at the utility's wind turbine site in exchange for a five-year solar power purchase agreement.

A single upfront payment of $1.2 million would be required from Willmar. At the end of five years, tenKsolar would gift the facility to Willmar or sell it for $1. If the project had been approved, Willmar's prepayment would have been be made by the end of January 2012 with the facility being interconnected and generating within four months.

Commissioner Jerry Gesch offered a motion, seconded by commissioner Dan Holtz, to approve the project. The vote to reject was 1-5 with Gesch voting in favor and commissioners Holtz, Baker, Doug Lindblad, Matt Schrupp and Marv Kray voting against.

During Monday's presentation to the commission, Folkedahl said it was agreed to bring the project to the Planning Committee "and we did so last week. Based on the presentations that were made at that meeting and later discussions and recommendations from the committee, tenKsolar revised their proposal and that is what you have before you today.''

One of the project's promoters was Jeff Vetsch of New London, 17-county coordinator of the Clean Energy Research Teams. He said his organization has been involved in this project for about three years when discussion began about doing a utility project.

One of the project's benefits was producing more energy locally.

"We've got a start with the wind turbines out there,'' Vetsch told the commission. "It would be great to do a little bit more, have this solar project, begin to develop those local resources and develop some of that community vitality by keeping some of those energy dollars with our community.''

Also, he said solar would help diversify energy resources.

"We don't know what energy prices are going to be like in 20 years, but we can be pretty confident that the sun's going to shine, the wind's going to blow, part of the year. We're going to get some energy from these resources,'' he said.

More importantly, he said, a project like this demonstrates community leadership.

"Having these two turbines out there surrounded by a solar farm would set the community apart in many ways from any other community in the state and offers opportunities to attract residents, businesses, who believe that they want to be part of a 21st century community, a community that's willing to be a leader,'' he said.

Baker, when asked later if defeat of the solar project would hurt Willmar's negotiations with EPA, said he did not know.

"We're going to have to take that chance. I think if EPA were asked, I would hope they would understand our position because of the operational issues we have to deal with and we just can't be spending money because that's what they want,'' he said.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150