Minnesota considers solar challenges on farmland

Recent state appeals court rulings are beginning to shed light on how far Minnesota counties can go to limit solar development on farmland.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled in three cases involving rural counties that rejected developers’ plans to build community solar farms. The court rejected McLeod County’s denials twice last year, though last month it confirmed Stearns County’s right to reject a solar power project.

The cases reflect growing tension between the solar industry and rural county officials who fear solar power will reduce property values, destroy agricultural landscapes, and possibly harm livestock.

“There is an ongoing kind of development — and we’re seeing this in Stearns County, specifically — of the attitude that sees solar impacts the rural character,” said Brian Ross, vice president of renewable energy at the Great Plains Institute.

It is not a new problem. The appeals court has ruled in at least two other cases involving community solar farms since 2017, both in Carver County. One of them asserted the right of the county council to deprive the developer of a conditional use permit; The other overturned its decision against a solar farm proposal. But conflicts occur more often because of the growing number of projects, said Ross, who has worked with communities on solar zoning issues for several years.

There were similarities between the Stearns and McLeod cases, with both counties arguing that community solar farms would be on premium farmland after developers sought conditional use permits.

The McLeod County Board of Directors voted 3-2 against an upgraded plan by US Solar for a 500-kilowatt small community solar farm even though board members acknowledged that the conditional-use permit application met its criteria. The court overturned the lawsuit in July 2021, finding that the county had failed to substantiate many of its assertions regarding the park’s negative impact on surrounding land values. He also asked if the property could be defined as “basic agricultural soil”.

This year the appeal case overturned MacLeod’s refusal of another solar energy project in the United States requesting conditional-use permits for solar farmers on 17 acres. The problems were largely the same as the first except that the county raised more concern about stray voltage, where electrical currents leak from damaged equipment or power lines, which can affect animal health.

In 2020, solar developer Impact Power Solutions (IPS) asked Stearns for a conditional use permit to lease 7.5 acres of a 113-acre plot in the town of Paynesville for a 1-megawatt solar park. The site was adjacent to another solar farm and a mile away from four other solar projects. Stearns County commissioners denied the request, calling for an appeal from the solar developer.

The difference in Stearns County’s case, Ross said, is that it has already put a rule in its comprehensive plan that allows commissioners to keep farmland even when the applicant meets other conditions. The land was also intended for farming, so the developer needed a conditional use permit. The court dismissed the IPS’s argument, agreed with the county that the property was agricultural land and used legally sufficient grounds to deny the conditional use permit.

Stearns County’s comprehensive plan encourages solar energy development in some areas. The county has a well-established and progressive solar energy policy featured in a case study by the Great Plains Institute. The language of the comprehensive plan in support of solar energy and primary agriculture led the judges to “defer to [the county] Ross said.

Ross believes that what is happening in Stearns and McLeod counties may be a harbinger of trouble ahead. Xcel Energy, which operates the Community Solar Program, has a backlog of projects awaiting approval that will add more than hundreds of megawatts of power to the grid. The facility has plans to build thousands of megawatts, some on its own land, but may have to rent property for the projects.

Ross said both counties are beginning to see solar projects clustered near interconnection points. Part of this is a direct result of the state’s rule limiting community solar sales to residents who live in the county where the solar power is located or adjacent counties. This sparked a wave of projects in counties near urban centers with available land. St. Cloud is the county seat of Stearns County, while McLeod is outside the Twin Cities metro area.

The Solar Energy Industries Association of Minnesota lobbied the legislature to change the regulation of contiguous counties to allow for a broader geographic footprint of community solar. When provinces kill off solar projects, the association’s executive director, Logan O’Grady, said they lose access to high-paying jobs and leave developers lost hours.

He also argues that it is arbitrary. “The Stearns County decision means that approval of solar projects remains based not on the merits of the projects but on political opinions to change elected councils,” O’Grady said. “For every industry, not just solar, the process of locating and permitting a project must be stable, predictable, and fair. These processes must not falter with elections.”

Eric Pacey, chief development officer at IPS, said Stearns’ case raised issues generally seen by developers in rural areas. “Many jurisdictions in Minnesota and around the country are concerned with land use, particularly in areas where agriculture is dominant,” he said. Pacey said research has shown that the country can supply 70% of its energy needs with solar energy using just 0.4% of agricultural land.

Pacey said a growing number of solar farms are using “dual-use” strategies by hosting pollinator habitats or agricultural cells that combine solar energy with agriculture. He said solar energy could help “heal and restore the earth by not continuing to grow or use pesticides,” using native plants. Projects containing these assets still do not always persuade county councils to discuss whether or not to grant conditional use permits.

Ross predicts that the problem will eventually resolve itself as more communities see the benefits of solar energy and its importance in decarbonizing. Since only a few counties have anywhere near the level of solar activity in Stearns — which has dozens of solar farm applications pending — he doesn’t think others will copy the conditional use permit language.

Nathan Schmalts, McLeod County Commissioner, represents the town where US solar projects are being built. After hearing about how Stearns organizes solar farms, he hopes McLeod will include a similar approach in its comprehensive farmland protection plan.

McLeod is adding regulations about setbacks for solar farms and requiring tie-in agreements before adjudicating conditional use permit applications. Schmaltz said landowners are beginning to express concerns about having too many solar farms and that the board is concerned about the loss of farmland.

He said MacLeod has approved several solar projects, but at least six have not been approved due to supply and labor problems. Community solar lost some of its appeal to county officials when regulators restricted community solar power to 1 megawatt, a restriction that eliminated the solar production tax paid by solar farm owners to counties.

Now the county council’s attention has turned to working with US Solar to ensure the company holds enough bond to shut down McLeod’s solar facilities when that time comes. “There are so many unknowns and it is hard to give value to something that will be decommissioned decades from now,” he said.

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