Solar energy: A new farm crop from proposed Aurora project
PAYNESVILLE — Dale Haglund has no doubt that a 13-acre swath of land on his Brooten racehorse farm would be put to better use as a solar farm than an alfalfa field.
“We live in Brooten, so it’s hard to raise a crop without an irrigator,” said Haglund. “It’s a money losing deal every year without an irrigator.”
So about two years ago when representatives from Geronimo Energy started looking for willing sellers with land close to an Xcel Energy substation for a proposed solar farm, Haglund and his wife, Nora, were eager to talk.
“I called the guy up and he came out,” Dale Haglund said during a brief interview Thursday in Paynesville following a public hearing on the solar project.
The Haglunds have a purchase agreement in hand, but they know it’s far from being a done deal.
“We are hoping it happens,” Dale Haglund said. “But it won’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t.”
Other landowners — spread over 24 sites in 16 west central Minnesota counties — are also in the same wait-and-see position.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission conducted six public hearings last week throughout the state to take comments on the site permit requests for the 100-megawatt Aurora solar project.
A final decision from the PUC is expected in June and construction at some sites could begin yet this year. Most construction would take place next year.
The last hearing was conducted Thursday in Paynesville, where testimony was taken on proposed sites in Brooten, Atwater and Paynesville.
About 30 people attended the Paynesville hearing, which generated questions about the technology of solar energy and how many jobs would be created. Only one individual questioned the project and the idea of using farmland for collecting solar power.
Each site in the project would generate between 1.5 and 10 megawatts of solar power that would be fed directly to customers in each municipality.
The Brooten site is one of the smallest and, if built, would generate 1.5 megawatts.
The Paynesville site would be one of the largest, with 10 megawatts of solar power generated.
“I believe in solar,” said Ron Brossard, who is one of the landowners on the Paynesville site who has agreed to sell farmland if the project advances. “We’re looking forward to seeing it done.”
Nathan Franzen, director of solar for Geronimo, said each facility would use solar panels placed on linear axis trackers that would allow the collectors to “follow the sun.”
He said the plants will “deliver power locally” by returning the locally generated solar power to the local electrical system to be used by homes and businesses.
Franzen said using the energy close to the source will reduce the need to use the transmission system, which would reduce energy loss that usually happens when electricity moves along transmission lines.
Because Minnesotans use peak power in the summer months, Franzen said generating solar power would help Xcel meet customers’ peak energy needs.
“We’ll be providing clean and renewable power,” said Franzen, and will provide a “significant hedge against price volatility.”
The project is estimated to cost $250 million in construction expenses.
The plants will support about three full-time equivalent jobs for every 10 megawatts to provide electrical maintenance, landscaping and snow removal.
The “sunlight is free” and Franzen said the cost to build solar plants is decreasing.
He said the current price is less than $2 a watt, compared to $7 a watt in 2009.
Construction of solar farms in other states has helped advance the technology and lowered the price to build solar plants, Franzen said.
The project will result in increased property taxes to townships and counties and will generate a production tax, he said.
Haglund said he’s talked to the Brooten City Council about the project, which would provide renewable electricity and tax revenue to the town.
“The City Council was all in favor of it,” said Haglund, who praised Geronimo Energy for doing research on wetlands and the archaeology of the site and for being “easy to work with” to reach a purchase contract.
Even if he sells some of his hobby farm for the solar project, Haglund said he will still have enough room to train his four quarter horses for races at Canterbury Downs.
Given all the noise and distractions at the racetrack grandstand, Haglund said he isn’t concerned that the solar panels will bother his horses much at all.
Written comments on the project will be accepted by the PUC until Feb. 24.