Home to the Monticello nuclear power plant, Wright County long has helped keep the lights on in the nearby Twin Cities.
Now the exurban county has been swept up in the newest clean-energy movement — solar power — and some are uneasy about how that will alter the landscape, transforming farms and forests into fields of solar panels.
Seven solar facility sites have been approved in the past year, and two more are pending in the county of 131,000 on Hennepin County’s northwestern border.
Amid an outcry from some residents, the Wright County Board has unanimously passed an emergency moratorium on any new solar farms under its jurisdiction. The temporary ban comes less than a year after the county rewrote its ordinances to allow solar facilities.
“It’s new and unknown. People perceive it will have an impact. It will use up farmland. What will it look like? It is coming at everyone fast,” said Sean Riley, Wright County’s planning and zoning administrator.
“This is going to be one of our biggest land issues in the next year or two.”
The County Board will hold a public hearing on the moratorium on Tuesday, May 10, and could vote to extend the moratorium for up to a year.
Other counties, including Chisago and Stearns, also have seen a surge of interest in solar facilities — both large ones, which are regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission, and smaller projects called solar gardens that require county approval.
That’s because in 2013, the state mandated that major utilities generate 1.5 percent of their power from the sun by 2020. That’s roughly the output of one power plant or wind farm.
Since then, the Public Utilities Commission has approved three large solar projects with sites in more than a dozen counties. There are applications pending with Xcel Energy for 981 smaller solar gardens at 232 sites.
“These projects will begin to come online later this summer,” Xcel spokeswoman Colleen Mahoney said. “As it stands today, this program is on track to be among the largest, most robust community solar gardens programs in the country.”
That means fields of solar panels soon will be a common sight in suburban and exurban communities that offer both proximity to the Twin Cities and affordable, undeveloped land.
“It sounds good to say we are going to get 1.5 percent of our energy from solar. It’s nice to write that on paper. To make it happen, there is a reality to it and an impact on the land,” Riley said.
Worries in Buffalo Township
It was construction of a solar facility on 75 acres in Buffalo Township, a rural area outside Buffalo, Minn., with a population of about 10,000, that triggered the Wright County moratorium.
The Buffalo solar facility is part of a larger project, called the Aurora Distributed Solar Energy Project, that will include 16 solar fields in several counties. The Aurora project, a $290 million investment, is so large that the Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction over it and approved it, rather than the county. Enel Green Power is building the solar site and Xcel Energy has agreed to buy the power.
Still, some Wright County residents were aghast to see forests and farm fields scraped clean for solar panels.
“Most of the people in our township are against it. They don’t think this is the way we should be going. We like our rural lifestyle,” said Donald Schmidt, a fourth-generation farmer who chairs the Buffalo Township Board.
Schmidt said he isn’t against solar energy, but “there are other places solar projects can be put other than our fine farmland, like exhausted gravel pits.”
In a statement, Enel representatives said they are working closely with local officials to “ensure that the Aurora solar project adheres to the highest environmental and agricultural standards.”
When the entire Aurora solar project is operational by the end of the year, it will generate enough power to serve more than 17,000 U.S. households while saving annual emissions of more than 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Riley said the goal is to watch a few solar projects get built, plug them into the grid and then see what happens. Questions about new technology and infrastructure are to be expected, he said: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Schmidt said he hopes Wright County will restrict the areas where solar facilities can go. He said that energy companies, left unchecked, will do what’s easiest and cheapest at the expense of what’s best for communities.
“There are probably some other options but this is easy,” he said.
Stearns holds off on ban
Where some view solar energy with suspicion, however, others sense opportunity.
This week, Stearns County weighed its own temporary ban on new solar farms but then scrapped it. At a County Board meeting Tuesday, a handful of people spoke against a moratorium, warning that it would delay good projects.
The board instead voted unanimously to form a work group to study solar.
A ban “will only make this process more difficult for residential and commercial individuals to go forward,” said Richard Bresnahan, an Avon Township resident who has applied for a third solar installation on his land.
The county’s current solar ordinance is working, said Evan Carlson, developer for Innovative Power Systems, a St. Paul-based solar company. Under it, “there’s opportunity for public input on a project-by-project basis.”
While it might appear that there’s a flurry of applications for solar projects, only a few will get built, Carlson said.
“You’re talking about a few hundred acres, tops, of solar,” Carlson told the board, “and that should be encouraged.”
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this report.