Rosemount may soon become home to the largest solar array in the metro area — a 314-acre tract of panels that would help power the Pine Bend Refinery.
The City Council approved the necessary permit this week. Flint Hills Resources, which owns Pine Bend Refinery and would also own the solar array, will decide whether to move ahead with the 45-megawatt project in the coming weeks.
Flint Hills Resources already owns the property where the solar project would be located — acreage west of the refinery and bisected by Rich Valley Boulevard that is mostly leased for farming.
"Solar developers for years have been approaching us about potential projects for them," said Jake Reint, vice president of public affairs for Flint Hills. "In the last year, we got really more focused on owning our own solar and incorporating it directly into our refinery operations."
Officials at Flint Hills believe going solar can make their company more competitive, since electricity is 18% more expensive for industrial users in Minnesota than the national average. The solar array could provide 40% of the power to run Pine Bend when the sun is shining, he said.
"We're in a commodity business," he said. "Efficiency is really important to us."
The solar panels would be between 9 and 14 feet tall, depending on their angle, Reint said. Plans call for pollinator-friendly habitat to be planted between them.
Reint said the company has an advisory council made up of community members and that group has had positive feedback about the project.
The solar facility could produce 45 megawatts of energy when operating at full capacity.
There are several larger solar projects in Minnesota, including North Star, near North Branch, at 100 megawatts; Marshall, in Lyon County, at 62.3 megawatts; and Elk Creek, in Rock County, at 80 megawatts.
But Logan O'Grady, executive director of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade organization that Flint Hills belongs to, said the project will be the biggest of its kind — a business installing a solar array for its own on-site energy use — in Minnesota and among the largest like that in the country.
The project "speaks to where the market is going," he said.
"That's kind of the trend we're seeing is solar is becoming less and less expensive every day and companies are making economic decisions on whether to go solar," he said.
Isabel Ricker, senior manager for clean energy at the nonprofit Fresh Energy, agreed that the project is unusual because of its size: "Projects around this scale do tend to be owned by utilities," she said.
More Twin Cities companies may pursue solar energy, she said, but it's likely they'll contract with developers who could build solar farms in southern Minnesota where there's more open land.
The Flint Hills project will be visible to anyone driving on Hwy. 52 in Rosemount, said Logan Martin, Rosemount city administrator.
"Certainly this is going to be a placemaker," he said. "As folks drive by, it's a major, major project."
He said he's excited about its innovative nature and environmental benefits.
Pine Bend Refinery will eventually use less energy because of the project, Martin said, which frees up capacity in Xcel Energy's grid — a selling point when the city courts industrial development.
Reint said the project would also provide a learning opportunity for other companies and the solar industry.
"This will be a really interesting opportunity to integrate an intermittent power source — solar — into a facility that has a very steady demand during the course of the year," he said.