Minnesota utility regulators on Thursday approved a $256 million solar project in Dodge County, the state's second-largest planned solar farm.
The new project, Byron Solar, would be located on 1,553 acres near the towns of Byron and Kasson and produce up to 200 megawatts of electricity, which on a sunny day would be equivalent to a small natural gas plant.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) unanimously approved Byron Solar despite pushback from Dodge County and Canisteo Township, both of which questioned the use of "prime farmland" for the project.
Their concerns may be a harbinger for the state as it strives to meet its new clean power goals. A law adopted this year calls for Minnesota utilities to produce 100% carbon-free power by 2040 to help battle climate change.
The largest solar farm planned for the state is Xcel Energy's 460-megawatt project in Becker.
Currently, Minnesota gets only around 3% of its power from the sun. Many more solar plants are likely needed to meet both state and utility goals — and Minnesota's best solar resources are in farm country.
Clean power giant EDF Renewables is developing Byron Solar, and it is planning to sell the plant's electricity, most likely to a utility. Construction is expected to begin next year, with electricity generation slated for 2025.
"I think it is a great project," Katie Sieben, the PUC's chair, said at a meeting on Thursday.
State law prohibits building large power plants on sites that include more than a half-acre of prime farmland per megawatt of electricity generation capacity unless there is "no feasible or prudent alternative."
Under that law, Byron Solar would be limited to 100 acres of prime farmland. But 69% of the Byron project — 1,080 acres — would sit on prime farmland, PUC documents show. Indeed, about 91% of Dodge County soil is considered prime farmland.
"This project will take ... very productive farmland out of our township," Neil Witzel, Canisteo Township supervisor, told the PUC on Thursday. "There will be a large impact on the [ability] of people to rent land. They will have to transport their tractors and equipment longer distances to farm."
But Barbara Case, a state administrative law judge, found that Byron Solar would cause a "negligible loss" of farmland in Dodge County. And the solar project would qualify for an exemption to the prime farmland law.
"There is no feasible and prudent alternative within a reasonable geographic area available to construct [Byron Solar] and not impact prime farmland," she wrote in a January decision.
Administrative law judges are appointed to analyze contentious cases before the PUC. Their findings are not binding. But PUC commissioners agreed with Case on the Byron project.
"I don't think there is a prime farmland concern," said PUC Commissioner John Tuma.
Byron Solar representatives told the PUC that landowners who will host the solar farm — which is expected to last at least 30 years — all signed voluntary agreements to lease their land.
"Some farmers in the area are saying ... 'I want to grow solar panels to diversify my income,'" Tuma said.
At 200 megawatts, Byron Solar would have a power production capacity. It would be twice as big as the state's current largest solar farm, which is near North Branch and owned by Xcel Energy.
The PUC in September approved Xcel's plans for a 460-megawatt solar farm in Becker that will cost $690 million. The PUC has permitted four other solar farms — ranging from 60 to 150 megawatts — in the past couple of years, and several more are pending before the commission.
But many of those projects, aside from Xcel's, have had trouble getting approval to connect to the regional grid run by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).
The grid operator faces a long line of renewable power projects in its 15-state turf. And MISO requires many of those projects to make expensive transmission improvements to link to an increasingly congested grid.
The Byron project has a leg up, PUC commissioners said Thursday, because it already has a grid interconnection agreement for 50% of its project and is close to getting one for the other half.
"There are very few projects that have [interconnection] agreements now and the fact that this has one is important," said PUC Commissioner Joe Sullivan.