Solar farms: PUC will hold hearings this week in Montevideo and Paynesville on projects
The Aurora Solar Project, which is being developed by the Edina-based Geronimo Energy in Xcel's service territory, includes solar arrays ranging in size from 1 1/2 megawatts to 10 megawatts at each site for a total generation of up to 100 megawatts.
The Aurora Solar Project, which is being developed by the Edina-based Geronimo Energy in Xcel’s service territory, includes solar arrays ranging in size from 1½ megawatts to 10 megawatts at each site for a total generation of up to 100 megawatts.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will conduct public hearings at six locations this week, including Tuesday in Montevideo and Thursday in Paynesville, to take testimony on a draft environmental assessment that could factor into whether or not the state will issue site permits at the proposed locations.
The hearing in Montevideo will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Montevideo Community Center.
The hearing in Paynesville will be at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Paynesville High School.
“We certainly encourage the public to attend,” said Dan Wolf, executive secretary for the Public Utilities Commission.
Written comments on the project sites will be received until Feb. 24.
The Aurora Solar project has already jumped numerous regulatory hurdles, including proving there is a need for the project and showing that terms of the power-purchase contract between Aurora and Xcel is “appropriate in the rate-payers interest,” Wolf said.
According to the PUC, the hearing will likely focus on the costs and benefits of the $250 million project, the “environmental and human impacts” of the proposal and how those impacts could be addressed.
Solar power is the “least impactful form of energy generation” and there is flexibility built into the proposal to respond to concerns, said Nathan Franzen, director of solar for Geronimo Energy.
The hearing will be conducted by Administrative Law Judge Barbara Neilson, who will consider the testimony when she issues a report and recommendation that the PUC will use to decide whether or not to issue a site permit, said Wolf.
That decision is expected to be made by the PUC in June.
Even if the PUC does approve the site permits, construction may not be pursued at all 24 sites, according to Franzen.
“The ultimate make-up will be determined by final design, equipment selection and the requirements of the site permit,” Franzen said.
The proposed sites range in size from 13 to 108 acres at the 24 central Minnesota sites.
In this region, the current proposal includes a 36-acre site just outside of the eastern city limits of Atwater along U.S. Highway 12 that would generate 4 megawatts, a 13-acre site near the Brooten city limits that would generate 1.5 megawatts, a 108-acre site near Paynesville that would generate 10 megawatts and a 25-acre site near Montevideo that’s referred to as the “Fiesta City Solar Site” that would generate 2.5 megawatts.
The sites were selected, in part, because of their proximity to an Xcel substation and a municipality that could easily use the solar energy, Franzen said, adding that lease or land-purchase options have been negotiated with the landowners.
The solar panels will be built “very low to the ground” on support racks that will be less than 10 feet tall, he said.
The panels will track the sun east to west and generate electricity that will be connected to the Xcel Energy grid and “deliver power to the local communities” that Franzen said could defer the need for future transmission lines.
The plan also includes creating a “pollinator” environment by planting grasses and flowers on the acreage. “It’ll be like a meadow with solar arrays sticking out of it,” Franzen said.
The entire proposal is expected to general local tax revenue of up to $240,000 each year.
The projects will provide construction jobs during the installation period and long-term electrical maintenance and landscaping jobs with local contractors, Franzen said.
Connie Schmoll, who has been working with renewable energy projects with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the project will not only have a positive impact through the creation of jobs but will also increase the visibility of solar energy in west central Minnesota.
Construction could begin yet this year at some sites, but Franzen said most facilities won’t be built until 2016.