A Minnesota Appeals Court ruling has given a solar-energy company a green light to build a solar garden in Carver County, reversing a decision by Carver County commissioners.
The County Board last year denied U.S. Solar's request to build and operate a one-megawatt solar energy system on eight or nine acres of privately owned farmland in Hancock Township.
The appellate court's decision, released Monday, called the decision "unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious," saying the reasons the board cited for denial were not supported by evidence.
The main concern among Carver County residents who opposed the project was that the solar garden could emit stray voltage — electrical currents that leak into the ground and can potentially deliver mild shocks to cows on nearby dairy farms, interfering with milk production. But expert opinions submitted by U.S. Solar called such worries baseless in regard to solar facilities.
In a similar case in December, the court reversed another decision by the Carver County Board denying a permit to a different nearby solar garden, also proposed by U.S. Solar. The findings on the other garden, which the company calls the Westeros project after a fictitious setting in the TV show "Game of Thrones," were the same — that the evidence did not support denying the permit.
"Stray voltage is a very emotional issue for people and for milk farmers because they don't feel that all the science is in," said board Chairman Randy Maluchnik. But the board, "can't say no without very clear and precise reasons based on science."
U.S. Solar built and operates four other solar gardens in Carver County. Previous projects also stirred controversy among residents, but they won board approval. Carver County currently holds nine solar gardens, with another six in development, said a spokeswoman for Xcel Energy, which buys power from the sites and administers the solar program.
"For us, we feel that Carver County and the Carver County staff has done a good job listening to the community and we appreciate the county, even though we had to go through this process," said Reed Richerson, U.S. Solar's chief operating officer.
Among the benefits of solar gardens, Richerson said, are extra income they provide for farmers or other landowners who host the projects.
The stray-voltage issue has been of concern among dairy farmers since at least the 1980s, and in recent years farmers have won large awards from utility companies in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But those cases did not involve solar gardens.