By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
MARSHALL, Minn. — It’s a venture that depends on lots of sunshine, but rural southwestern Minnesota residents remain largely in the dark about the biggest solar power project in the state, quietly being platted for hundreds of acres of crop land surrounding them.
“Our overall concern is and has been the lack of knowledge within our neighborhood,” said Janelle Geurts, an opponent who fears solar panels could be erected within 100 feet of her house. “We had heard from a number of people that this project was to be kept quiet. Our concern is protecting our farm land.”
Five hundred acres of farmland will be plowed under to make room for 200,000 to 275,000 photovoltaic panels that will generate 62 megawatts of solar powered electricity, Nextera Energy Resources told Watchdog Minnesota Bureau.
Why here? Location, location, location — near Xcel Energy’s power transmission facilities about five miles north of Marshall in Lyon County.
“It’s one thing to generate it (electricity), but then you’ve got to get it to where it’s needed,” said Steve Stengel, Nextera Energy Resources communication director. “It just so happened that this acreage was available and very close to the substation where you take the power and it’s distributed out from there.”
As word of the massive $100 million project spread after Christmas, residents called an impromptu meeting that had to be moved from the township hall to Guerts’ machine shed to accommodate about 75 apprehensive landowners.
“My biggest concern is my property value. I have busted my hump to get what I have out there. And you wind up with a solar farm 50 feet from your property line?” asked Chuck Muller, an opponent who lives adjacent to the proposed solar site. “I won’t be able to give my house away and that’s what’s got everybody worked up.”
Facing a new state mandate to generate 1.5 percent of its power from solar energy, Xcel Energy picked Nextera from other competitive bids. The biggest wind and solar power developer in the country, Nextera still needs to receive a site permit from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Due to the size of the project, however, county and township officials have no local control over the approval process.
“If it’s over 50 megawatts, counties are pre-empted from permitting,” said John Biren, Lyon County zoning administrator, who met with Nextera officials recently. “You get something controversial like this, you take the local politics out of it. I think that’s the theory, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad.”
A backlash against the project became public with a blistering letter published Thursday in the Marshall Independent, blaming state legislators for circumventing local zoning authorities in the 2014 law mandating solar power.
“If loss of local control, decreased property values, increased cost of electricity or future cleanup issues of a 500-acre industrial site is a concern, then this project is a concern,” wrote Greg Boerboom of Marshall. “This project, mandated by the metro members of our Minnesota Legislature along with our governor, ignored the facts about the inefficacy of solar power.”
Watchdog Minnesota Bureau asked one of three brothers selling their land for the solar farm about the timetable for the solar farm. “We don’t know. You can talk to our lawyer on it because they haven’t given us any answers,” said Joel Deutz, whose acreage has been optioned by Nextera.
Nextera plans to pitch the economic benefits to residents at a Wednesday meeting at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. The Florida-based company estimates the solar farm will generate $40,000 in property taxes and $120,000 in production taxes annually for the 25 year duration of the power purchase agreement with Xcel Energy.
“We know that there may be some concerns out there and we are doing our best to listen and to understand,” said Stengel, the Nextera spokesman. “And to the extent possible, we will do what we can to answer questions and provide any information we can to put any fears at ease.”
Yet resentment runs high among many residents before the Florida-based developer even gets to the area, along with frustration that their concerns have little or no impact on whether one of the first utility-scale solar facilities in Minnesota goes in across the street.
“This has been farm country for years and now they’re going to make it into some kind of industrial development,” said Tom Allex, a farmer with 190 acres adjoining the proposed solar farm. “…This thing should be more thought out. Our legislature didn’t do us a favor by okaying this.”