Big solar energy projects in outstate Minnesota are not going over well with some potential neighbors.
Energy companies have proposed more than 25 sites across the state for ground-mounted solar panels, including two giant projects equivalent in size to one or two Lake Calhouns in Minneapolis. The solar boom is fueled by a state law requiring investor-owned utilities to generate 1.5 percent of their electricity from the sun by 2020.
But Chuck Muller, who lives 5 miles east of Marshall in southwest Minnesota, said the nearly 500 acres of solar panels proposed on an adjacent farm will create a prairie of glass on three sides of his property.
"I won't have a view anymore," said Muller, a maintenance worker at the local school district. "My main concern is 'What is this going to do to my property value?' Nobody is going to want to be out here and be basically surrounded by a solar farm."
Just down the road, fourth-generation farmer Janelle Geurts said she and her husband, John, were alarmed when a neighbor made a deal with solar developer NextEra Energy Resources. "Honestly, our biggest concern is that we are trading off green growing fields that provide food," she said.
Some cities in outstate Minnesota have objected to solar projects because they're proposed on land slated for expansion. In Zumbrota, a site for a proposed solar energy project is in an area where state and local governments invested $2.2 million in road upgrades for industrial and commercial development. Other cities have invested in sewer and water lines that aren't needed for solar generation.
"It's not that we don't want solar," said Jeff O'Neill, city administrator for Monticello, where another solar project planned on a former golf course conflicts with that city's plans for future homes and businesses. "Solar is fine in our back yard, just not in our growth corridor where we have so much planned."
Two bills in the state Legislature aim to address the concerns. One bill, proposed by Muller's legislator, Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, would require 400 feet of separation between solar projects and the nearest home. Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, has a separate bill to give county boards the power to approve or reject large solar energy generators. That authority now rests with the state Public Utilities Commission for projects of 50 million watts or more.
Solar energy companies say they are working with residents and local governments to deal with concerns, which are common with all energy projects from power plants to wind farms and pipelines.
"A lot of what you are hearing are concerns about the unknown," said Betsy Engelking, vice president for Edina-based Geronimo Energy, which is planning solar projects across the state. "Solar is a really benign energy source. It has no noise. It has nothing spinning in the air. It doesn't emit anything. It doesn't use water, or produce dirty water."
Geronimo and other companies have offered to screen solar panels from some homes with berms or plantings. Florida-based NextEra has reduced the Marshall Solar project's footprint and increased distances from residences, including Muller's home, which will be 650 feet — more than two football fields — from the project, said Steve Stengel, the company's spokesman.
"The community provided us feedback and we made positive changes," Stengel said in an interview.
Stengel said there is no evidence that property values suffer from nearby solar projects. But Muller is not convinced, and wants NextEra to purchase his solar-surrounded home. The company has declined — and is not obligated to buy him out.
"It is like David and Goliath," Muller said. "We are just innocent people battling this great big billion-dollar company."
In a recent environmental analysis of 24 solar sites proposed by Geronimo Energy for its Aurora Solar Project, the Minnesota Commerce Department said that one on the edge of Pipestone is too close to residences, and four others — in Annandale, Mayhew Lake, Wyoming and Zumbrota — are proposed in future development areas. But those shortcomings won't automatically kill those projects, and the company says it's working to address all concerns.
Some of the conflict is about taxes. Solar panels don't raise assessed values like bricks and mortar. If the Zumbrota solar project is built on a site along Hwy. 52, it likely would generate about $8,000 a year in energy production fees and property taxes. By comparison, a nearby cold-storage company pays more than $300,000 a year in county and local taxes for a similar-size property.
Rosemount, a city of 22,000 people in Dakota County, prepared itself for solar by passing a solar ordinance. That put the city in a good bargaining position when Geronimo Energy proposed up to 21 large solar gardens on 160 acres there. In December, Geronimo agreed to pay Rosemount up to $25,000 annually to make up for the low tax rate on solar projects. The ordinance also keeps the door open for residential or commercial development on the site after 25 years.
Monticello also is negotiating with a solar developer, Minnetonka-based Sunrise Energy Ventures, and both sides say the talks are going well. The company, led by managing director Dean Leischow, is proposing up to 50 large solar gardens on a former golf course west of the city.
That project, like several other planned solar parks, is in an "orderly annexation area" — property that Monticello planned to annex for future development.
Leischow said the project may end up being smaller than once planned, and the city potentially could get some of the project's output to offset its electricity bills.
"I am optimistic," Leischow said. "The city has been very cooperative."