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Proposed solar project finds support in Montevideo

MONTEVIDEO -- Hearings on where to site a new power plant are usually contentious affairs, but not this one. But then, this is not your typical power plant: Geronimo Energy's Aurora Solar Project LLC is proposing to develop a 26-acre solar farm o...

Hearing on solar project in Montevideo
TRIBUNE / Tom Cherveny Tenya Rytel, from left, with Geronimo Energy’s Aurora Solar Project, discusses the proposed site near Montevideo with Gary Johnson, a member of the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners, and David Craigmile, of rural Dawson. They attended a hearing hosted Tuesday evening by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

MONTEVIDEO - Hearings on where to site a new power plant are usually contentious affairs, but not this one.
But then, this is not your typical power plant: Geronimo Energy’s Aurora Solar Project LLC is proposing to develop a 26-acre solar farm outside the city of Montevideo. It is one of 24 potential sites scattered about Minnesota that would generate 100 megawatts of electricity for Xcel Energy.
It is expected that 20 of the proposed sites will be developed in 2016 at an estimated $250 million overall project cost.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is conducting public hearings at six locations week, including Tuesday in Montevideo and today in Paynesville, to take testimony on a draft environmental assessment that could factor into whether or not the state will issue site permits for the proposed locations.
The hearing at 6 p.m. today will be in the Seminar Room at the Paynesville High School, 795 Old Highway 23 in Paynesville.
Written comments on the project sites will be received until Feb. 24.
In Montevideo, the plan was met with curiosity and support by local officials and others attending the PUC hearing Tuesday evening.
“We have worked with Aurora for close to two years and appreciate the fine job they have done,’’ said Steve Jones, Montevideo city manager.
He was the only participant at the official hearing to speak for the record. The solar farm - known as the Fiesta City site - will be located near the city’s airport and have the capacity to generate 2.5 megawatts of power. The Federal Aviation Administration and the city of Montevideo were initially concerned that the panels could reflect sunlight to the detriment of pilots.
Jones said a study found that there was very little possibility of problems with reflection, and then only during a two-hour time frame once each in the spring and fall.
Other local officials attending the hearing also reported that the solar project has been well-received in the area. “Impressed,’’ said Jim Dahlvang, a member of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners. He noted that no opposition was voiced; he’s heard mainly from people curious or supportive of the clean energy proposal.
“I really think they worked well with the community,’’ said fellow member of the Chippewa County Commissioner Dave Lieser. “I’m really excited about having this in our community.’’
Aurora Solar was awarded a power purchase agreement with Xcel Energy over competing natural gas projects.
The solar project offers a number of advantages, according to Nathan Franzen, director of solar for the company.
The solar farm site will connect to Xcel’s Fiesta City substation and feed power directly to the distribution system in the city of Montevideo. By delivering its power directly to the local community, the system eliminates by half the amount of electricity that is lost when power is placed on the regional transmission grid. “We typically lose about 10 percent of our power just transmitting it across all of our transmission system to get it to our local businesses,’’ Franzen said.
The direct connection also means the company and other utilities do not need to invest in costly components to add capacity to the regional transmission grid.
Solar power also offers a distinct advantage to meeting Xcel Energy’s need for power at peak demand periods, such as those hot and sunny summer days when air conditioning units are running. That’s when the most solar power is generated.
The Aurora project calls for a distributed network of solar farms, each ranging in size from 1.5 megawatts to 10 megawatts. “If a single project goes down, we lose two or three megawatts,’’ Franzen said. “We still have 97 percent of our project online and able to deliver energy capacity to the system.’’
The individual solar panels will be mounted on a tracking system, with a pivot point about 4 feet above the ground. A “pollinator friendly’’ mix of vegetation will be maintained under the panels.
The panels near Montevideo will cover what is now a farm field, but still provide tax revenues to Sparta Township and Chippewa County. Franzen said the solar farm will pay a production tax to the local entities based on megawatts produced.
There are no state subsidies for the project, but it will qualify for a federal investment tax credit.
The Public Utilities Commission has already determined a need for the project, but will decide which sites to permit and any conditions to be placed on them.
Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson will consider the testimony offered at the public hearings and issue a report and recommendation that the PUC will use to decide whether or not to issue a site permit.
That decision is expected to be made by the PUC in June.
If the project meets current timelines, ground work on the sites could start this autumn with the sites producing power by the end of 2016.
Aurora Solar has a 20-year contract to provide power to Xcel, but the equipment has a life expectancy of 25 to 40 years, Franzen said. The equipment’s capacity to produce electricity degrades over time by about one-half percent per year. He noted that 25 to 30 years from now, the best use of the parcel may be something other than a solar farm.

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