MN Solar Pathways

Minnesota Solar Guide

Introduction

 

The Minnesota Solar Guide provides information and tools to support solar energy development in communities across the state.

The guide was created as part of MN Solar Pathways, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office to explore least-risk, best-value paths for Minnesota to achieve its solar energy goals.

 

Guide Topics (click to expand)

Generally, renewable energy is taxable in three ways: energy production, real property, and equipment sales taxation. In 2019, solar companies paid $1.4+ million in production taxes to counties & townships.

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Compensation offers made to landowners to host solar energy equipment usually involve a long-term cash lease agreement. The average lease in Minnesota is $1,000 an acre per year. In some instances, a solar developer may offer to purchase the parcel outright.

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As of 2019, the National Solar Jobs Census reported Minnesota held 4,335 solar jobs across 187 solar companies. Solar installers made up over 2,960. Minnesota also offers several training opportunities for solar energy professionals.

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Solar energy at many scales can be beneficial to farmers and other landowners, and there are several land use considerations depending on the size of the project and the site.

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There are different siting requirements for renewable energy project depending on their size, from projects that are 5MW or less to projects that are 50MW or more.

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Many see the land use change from traditional row crop agriculture to idle fields under solar projects as an opportunity to reestablish and/or extend pollinator and wildlife habitat, which has become a common best practice in Minnesota.

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Community planning as it relates to siting solar projects in or adjacent to communities is critically important. When solar energy is included, traditional planning and zoning tools should help communities make informed decisions about solar energy projects, including how and where those projects should be constructed.

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Many local government regulations focus on managing aesthetics for their communities. This section covers common methods local governments use to regulate screening and aesthetics related to solar fields.

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It is not uncommon for people to have concerns about things that are new, and often solar is new to communities where it is being sited. We've done our best to offer straightforward responses to many of the concerns that seem to arise most often, including stray voltage, waste, glare, and decommissioning.

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Tax revenue

 

In 2019, solar companies paid $1.4+ million in production taxes to counties & townships.

Generally, renewable energy is taxable in three ways: energy production, real property, and equipment sales taxation. Utility-scale solar and community solar garden taxation is based primarily on size and may cause changes to the real property tax classification from agricultural to industrial. In contrast, wind farms are primarily taxed on the amount of their energy production and rarely involve changes to real property tax classification because the underlying land use (typically agriculture) does not change.

 

When solar is produced, the company pays a solar production credit that becomes a tax benefit to the county, cities, schools, and townships. For us that means $250,000 a year in property tax relief from solar.

Bruce Messelt, Chisago County Administrator

Production Taxes

Solar energy production taxes (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.0295) are determined by the total size of the “solar energy generating system” and apply when the system is larger than 1 MW.  The total size of a solar energy generating system is determined by the following criteria:

  • constructed within the same 12-month period,
  • interconnected with the same distribution system,
  • nameplate capacity exceeds 1 MW alternating current (AC)
  • exhibits characteristics of a single development (i.e. umbrella sales arrangement, same ownership structure, common financing)

If there is a dispute about the size of a solar development, the Department of Commerce determines the total size of the system and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of combining the systems.

In making the size determination, the Minnesota Department of Commerce may find that two solar PV systems are under common ownership when the underlying ownership structure contains similar persons or entities, even if the ownership shares differ between the systems.  Two systems are not under common ownership solely because the same person or entity provided equity financing for systems.

Production Tax Rate

For a solar PV system with a capacity greater than 1 MW, the tax is $1.20 per MWh (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.0295, subd. 3).  Systems that are less than 1 MW are exempt from the production tax rate. See also Minn. Dept. Rev., Energy Production Taxes.

Reporting Production, Notification of Tax & Collection

The owner of a solar energy project must file a report with the Minnesota Department of Commerce before January 15th of each year detailing how many MWh their facility produced. By February 28th of each year, the Minnesota Department of Commerce must notify solar project owners of the tax due and to which county(ies) the tax is owed. The Minnesota Department of Commerce must also certify to the county auditor of each county in which the project is located the tax due from the project owner for that year.  In turn, at least 50% of the production tax amount must be paid to the appropriate county treasurer by May 15 and the remaining 50% by October 15.

Distribution of Production Tax Revenues

The county auditor splits the revenue on an 80% county and 20% cities/townships basis for the local taxing jurisdictions in which the system lies.

Property Taxation

Personal/Business Use Property:  The actual frame, modules, inverters, transformers, conduit, etc. for solar arrays which are typically used for farm, residential or small business use, are exempt from property taxation (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.02, subds. 22 and 24).

Real Property – Solar:  If the real property upon which a solar energy generating system is located is primarily for solar energy production subject to the production tax as described above, meaning if it is determined to be 1 MW alternating current or larger (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216E.021), then the real property is classified as class 3a “Commercial, Industrial and Utility Property”. If the real property on which the solar generating system is located is not used primarily for solar energy production, then the property is classified without regard to the system (i.e. business as usual taxation) (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.02, subd. 24). Whether the real property underlying a 1 MW AC solar array is primarily used for solar energy production is a question of fact made by the county assessor, but may be challenged in court (Minn. Stat. Sec. 278.01). For example, if a landowner can demonstrate the primary use of the land underlying a solar field is to graze livestock or produce honey or flowers, the landowner may be able to demonstrate - likely through proof of revenues - the primary use is agriculture and should be taxed at the agricultural rate.

Real Property – Wind: In contrast, if approved by the county where the wind turbine(s) is located, the value of the land on which the wind turbine is located shall be valued in the same way as similar land that does not host a wind turbine. The land must be classified based on the most probable use of the property (likely, agricultural production) if it were not improved with a wind energy system (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.02, subd 22). This practice is very similar to Minnesota’s “Green Acres” program which allows tax assessors to value farm properties using an agricultural value instead of an estimated market value in order to defer economic pressures related to land development (Minn. Stat. Sec. 273.111; see also MN Dept. of Revenue Green Acres Program).

Property Tax Classification: Class 3a property is Commercial, Industrial and Utility Property.  For classification, parcels are considered to be contiguous 3a property, even if separated by a road, waterway, street or other intervening property.  The class rate of 3a property is generally 1.5% for the first $150,000 in market value, and 2.00% thereafter with a handful of exceptions (i.e. the Metropolitan Airport Commission) (Minn. Stat. Sec 273.13). Once again, agricultural land hosting 1 MW AC of solar or more is typically reclassified from Class 2a Agricultural Land (taxed at a 1% rate as agricultural non-homestead land, not subject to local referendum levies or state general tax) or Class 2b Rural Vacant Land (also taxed at a 1% rate and also not subject to referendum levies or state general tax) to Class 3a Utility Property (taxed at a 2% rate subject to both referendum levies and state general tax) (Minn. Stat. Sec. 272.02, subd. 24). If the solar array hosted by the property is subject to the solar production tax, it shall be reclassified as class 3a Commercial, Industrial and Utility property; Note: Solar does not fall under the “electrical generation machinery” exception to the state general levy property tax rate). Again, agricultural land hosting wind energy systems must be classified based on the most probable use of the property, meaning it would not likely convert to Class 3a Utility Property. 

Sales Tax – Solar and Wind Products Exempt

Solar energy products (Minn. Stat. Sec. 297A.67, subd. 29) (i.e. the panels, inverters, racking systems, etc.) and wind energy components are exempt (Minn. Stat. Sec. 297A.68, subd. 12) from Minnesota sales tax.

Landowner payments

 

Compensation offers made to landowners to host solar energy equipment usually involve a long-term cash lease agreement. The average lease in Minnesota is $1,000 an acre per year. In some instances, a solar developer may offer to purchase the parcel outright.

This is because the surface land use changes significantly from agricultural row crop production to generating solar power. The compensation and contract terms tend to mirror the phases of development.

 

This solar garden is approximately 22 acres and it produces enough power to power about 1,000 homes. It makes a lot sense for me that I know this 22 acres is going to make me a profit and it’s also producing a lot of electricity and helping out the community.

Ed Eichten, Owner of Eichtens Hidden Acres

Investigatory Phase (Short Term)

Initially, the project developer will offer the landowner an option-lease agreement with a small payment, typically less than $5,000 in a one-time payment, as consideration for the ability to access the property, investigate viability for solar development, and possibly elect to lease the land for the long term. During this phase, the solar developer is studying the electric grid, soil type, development financing, equipment placement, and any potential challenges that might prevent the project from going forward. 

This option portion of the option-lease agreement gives the solar developer the right to exercise its option to lease the land if the solar developer chooses. The lease portion of the same agreement spells out in finer detail rent amounts and periodic rent increases, operational timing of the project, property taxation, assignment to another company, insurance, remedies, and, generally, the many rights and responsibilities of each party to the agreement.

In the instance the solar developer is not able to develop the project within the written time period (typically 1-2 years with the possibility of annual extensions), the landowner keeps the option payment and parties go their separate ways. In the instance the landowner does or does not do something which prevents the solar development, then the landowner should return the deposit, depending on the terms of the option agreement.

Construction Phase (Short Term)

Relatively speaking, the construction phase of solar development is usually a matter of months. By the time a construction company has equipment on site and is ready to install solar panels, the solar developer will have accomplished all the legwork to acquire the necessary government permits, engineering studies, and agreements with the electric utility to take on the solar electricity. A hosting landowner may negotiate for compensation during the construction phase for any inconveniences or crop input or yield losses, for example. Often, a developer will begin paying the lease money once construction begins. 

Operational Phase (Long Term)

Broadly speaking, the operational phase starts when the project is constructed and fully commissioned, though lease payments to the landowner begin with project construction. As of early 2020, this lease payment amount has ranged between $800 to $1200 per acre per year. Landowners should ensure their lease payment structure includes a percent escalator to track with dollar inflation. Compensation should continue until the solar equipment is physically removed from the land and the land returned to its original condition.

Project Extension or Decommissioning (Short Term)

The lease portion of the option-lease agreement may include a clause wherein the landowner and solar project owner revisit the lease terms to extend the solar project’s life by recommissioning it with updated equipment. Most likely, this would reset the operational phase for another 25-30 years. Alternatively, the lease portion should include a clause about decommissioning the solar project by removing all equipment and returning the land to its pre-development condition within a certain specific time frame once the project has ceased to operate, typically 12 months. Lease rent payments should continue until the project is fully decommissioned.

Miscellaneous Payments

Solar panels are not the only components of a solar project.  Service roads, substations, additional electrical equipment, overhead lines, impacts and/or damage to drain tile lines, stormwater ponds, and more are also integral parts of a solar energy project. Landowners should ensure there are compensation mechanisms spelled out in the land option-lease agreement for these items as well. For example, overhead lines might be compensated at a dollar figure per linear foot, and service roads might be compensated on the basis of acreage lost with an additional payment for any inconvenience caused to farm implement use during planting and harvesting.

Legal Matters

For more information on the different types of legal agreements and land transactions involved in solar energy development, please read the Farmers Legal Action Guide to Solar and Wind Energy in Minnesota (2019). This professional guide provides more detailed insight on easements, leases, options, rights of first refusal, land sales and the many details landowners might consider when approached by a solar energy developer.

Job creation

 

As of 2019, the National Solar Jobs Census reported Minnesota held 4,335 solar jobs across 187 solar companies. Solar installers made up over 2,960 of those jobs with the balance coming from wholesale trade and distribution, manufacturing, and operation and maintenance jobs, among others.

Minnesota has a strong and growing solar industry, largely due to solar policies such as the 1.5% solar electricity standard and 10% solar electricity by 2030 goal, as well as developments in community solar gardens.

 

This is a very viable career to get into. It’s not going to fall through anytime soon. It’s a big market, and I’d like to see more diversity in the market as well.

Leon “Tron” Mallett, Crew Leader with IPS Solar

Solar Jobs

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median salary of $44,890 or $21.58/hour for solar photovoltaic installers. Additionally, solar installer positions are projected to grow 63% from 2018 to 2028 nationally, a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Solar Photovoltaic Installers). 

Minnesota hosts over 360 solar manufacturing jobs in different parts of the state such as Heliene, Inc. in Mountain Iron, MN. Additionally, over a dozen equipment fabricators and machining companies who serve the solar industry operate in Minnesota (MN Dept. of Commerce, 2017).

Training

Though no career path is typical, many solar energy technicians have studied electrical construction with a special emphasis in solar energy. This line of training prepares students for success in both the traditional and renewable energy fields. It provides a core curriculum that involves the study of electrical, electronic and mechanical systems that are fundamental to the profession. Students then tailor their training to solar energy through a series of course electives often with titles such as solar site assessment, photovoltaics system laboratory, and solar energy construction project laboratory, among many others. Several Minnesota technical colleges provide this kind of curriculum:

Additionally, there is solar specific training for licensed electricians and electrical workers who wish to refocus their career on solar energy:

Land use & prime ag land

 

Solar energy at many scales can be beneficial to farmers and other landowners, and there are several land use considerations depending on the size of the project and the site.

A large-scale solar project requires approximately 6-10 acres per megawatt (MW) in contrast to less than an acre per 2 MW turbine for wind energy projects. While wind energy projects allow shared land use with agriculture, large-scale solar projects are far more likely to change the underlying land use from conventional crop production to low-growth prairie, graze land, hay production, or another less intensive agricultural use.

 

Agrivoltaics

Many institutions, like the National Renewable Energy Labs, are currently experimenting with horticultural and grazing practices under solar farms today. The concept of “dual use” or agrivoltaics, the combination of agricultural land use and solar electric production, has been around since the early 1980s.

Getting the rules right

 

As part of the Grow Solar Partnership, a toolkit was assembled to equip local governments in Minnesota with information regarding solar development as it relates to planning, zoning, and permitting.

The purpose of the toolkit is to provide resources that will assist communities in addressing barriers to solar energy installations in a manner tailored to each community’s needs. The Minnesota Toolkit was given the 2017 Innovation in Planning Award by the Minnesota American Planning Association.

 

Project Size

Permitting requirements for solar farms vary by generation capacity. Minnesota’s Power Plant Siting Act (Minn. Stat. Chapter 216E) requires all solar farms capable of producing 50 Megawatts (MW) or more to obtain a site permit from the Public Utilities Commission prior to construction. Groups of solar facilities determined to be a single, aggregate development of 50 MW or more also fall under the PUC’s permitting authority. 

Solar farms with a generation size less than 50 MW are permitted at the local level with slightly varying standards across county jurisdictions. These standards often include zoning limitations, overlay protection districts, and setback distances, among other matters. Most utility-scale solar developments are sited in the least restricted areas, agricultural zoning districts. Though many county governments prioritize farmland protection in their ordinances, more often than not, they will issue a conditional use permit or variance for a solar project if they have not already addressed solar development.

Prime Farmland Rule

Solar farms 50 MW and larger are subject to a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission administrative rule to exclude energy generating installations from “prime farmland” as defined by the USDA-NRCS (7 C.F.R. 657.5(a)). Minnesota’s Prime Farmland Rule states no large solar farm (50 MW or more) may be permitted where it includes more than 0.5 acres of prime farmland per MW of net generation capacity (Minnesota Rules 7850.4400, subpart 4). The Prime Farmland Rule contains an exception to siting solar facilities on prime farmland “where there is no feasible and prudent alternative”. In light of competing State mandates to advance solar energy production and protect prime farmland, the Public Utilities Commission has relied on the “no feasible and prudent alternative” exception by coordinating with the MN Department of Agriculture to allow for solar farm development on prime farmland through MN Dept. of Agriculture approved vegetative management and agricultural impact mitigation plans.

Minnesota has over 25 million acres of land in farms and over 17.3 million acres of prime farmland. Minnesota’s goal of obtaining 10% of electrical energy from solar is estimated to take up approximately 60,000 to 100,000 acres of surface area at the estimated 6-10 acres per megawatt of solar. This represents a small fraction of displacement of 0.34%-0.57% of prime farmland or 0.24-0.4% of all land in farms and does not include solar development that will take place on marginal farmland, or land in urban environments on under-utilized rooftops, parking lots, and similar land uses.

In contrast, Minnesota loses approximately 30,000 acres of farmland to low density residential (suburban) and commercial development on an annual basis. Over 1,000,000 acres of farmland was held in a USDA conservation reserve program as of the 2017 Agricultural Census.

Farmland & Solar

 

By 2030, if Minnesota installed 10,000 MW of solar—which is enough to exceed the state's ambitious 10% solar energy goal—it would still account for 0.4% or less of farmland.

Here's the math: 10,000 MW times 10 acres comes to 100,000 acres of solar. If you remove 1,000,000 acres in farmland over 10 years due to other development pressures, that leaves 24,500,000 farmland acres. 100,000 solar acres out of 24,500,000 farmland acres accounts for just 0.4% of farmland for solar.

 

Compatibility with Farming

Community-scale (6-10 acres/1 MW of solar) and on-farm solar projects (100 kW and under) are highly compatible with a wide range of farming operations. Utility-scale projects sized 50 MW or larger tend to displace traditional production methods, occasionally resulting in a land sale from the landowner to the project developer.

Community-scale solar projects offer a consistent cash rent payment ranging from $800-$1,200 per acre per year, well above the market for traditional grains. These lease payments provide a valuable hedge against sometimes challenging weather patterns and volatile agricultural markets. Though farmers may give up a small amount of acreage to solar project development, developers often target marginally productive lands in an attempt to reduce the costs of development. The result is a win-win where the farmers optimizes profitability from less-than-ideal farmland and the solar project developer can realize a cost-efficient project through slightly reduced lease payments.

Siting Authority

 

There are different siting requirements for renewable energy project depending on their size, from projects that are 5MW or less to projects that are 50MW or more.

Solar sized 50 megawatts (MW) or more falls under the jurisdiction of Minnesota’s Power Plant Siting Act (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216E.01) and related statutes which require a solar developer to obtain a Site Permit and a Certificate of Need (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216B.243) before construction.

 

Certificate of Need - 50 MW or more

A solar developer seeking to build a large solar field must obtain a Certificate of Need from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The Certificate of Need determination is designed as a threshold question to understand whether the State needs the proposed development. In particular, the Public Utilities Commission examines whether the demand for electricity could be met more cost effectively, for example, through energy conservation and load-management measures. The Commission evaluates the need for the proposed project according to several criteria, including the accuracy of long-range energy demand forecasts, benefits of the project to enhance environmental quality and increase energy reliability, among many other considerations (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216B.243).

Though the burden of justifying the need for the solar project lies with the project developer, Minnesota law prioritizes renewable energy projects over traditional resources. Minnesota law and energy planning policy specifically promote energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy as priority goals for the State (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216C.05).

Site Permit - 50 MW or more

The Power Plant Siting Act delineates how solar developers may not avoid the 50 MW threshold by splitting up a solar development into smaller pieces. The Act also empowers city or county governments to take on siting authority for solar developments 50 MW or more should the local government so desire, and preempt the Public Utilities Commission in issuing a Site Permit. In practice, local governments almost always defer to the Public Utilities Commission in light of the Commission’s expertise, financial capacity and political insulation to manage this technical review.

In the instance a solar developer seeks a Site Permit through the Public Utilities Commission, the Power Plant Siting Act requires environmental review from the MN Dept. of Commerce’s Energy Environmental Review and Analysis Unit (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216E.03) to explore impacts to the local environment and community and compatibility with local government land use preferences, among other matters. In order to obtain a Site Permit, a solar developer must work through and meet the requirements of the Minnesota Administrative Rules (Minn. Rules Chapter 7850).

Projects Sized 25-49.9 MW

Solar projects falling within a size range of 25 MW up to 49.9 MW are subject to the permitting rules, performance standards, setback requirements, and related ordinances of the local county or city government. Nonetheless, state law still requires an environmental review by the MN Pollution Control Agency for stormwater permitting (Minn. Rule 7090) and the Environmental Quality Board for impacts to the environment (Minn. Rule 4410).

Projects Sized 5-24.9 MW

This class of projects is sited at the local government level though the solar project developer must still obtain the appropriate stormwater permits from the MN Pollution Control Agency (Minn. Rule 7090). Again, these projects are subject to the permitting rules, performance standards, setback requirements, and related ordinances of the local government. Projects in this size range are subject to discretionary environmental review with an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) by the MN Environmental Quality Board at the request of the project developer, local government, or by citizen petition. (Minn. Rule 4410.4500). Additionally, where more than 80 acres of agricultural land, native prairie, forest or naturally vegetated land is proposed for conversion, the MN Environmental Quality Board requires environmental review by way of an EAW (Minn. Rule 4410.4300).

Projects Sized under 5 MW

The smallest class of projects is environmentally reviewed and sited at the local government level, though still subject to stormwater permitting requirements by the MN Pollution Control Agency where an acre or more of land is involved (Minn. Rule 7090).

Wildlife and Habitat

 

Many see the land use change from traditional row crop agriculture to idle fields under solar projects as an opportunity to reestablish and/or extend pollinator and wildlife habitat, which has become a common best practice in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) have dedicated resources to promote and provide guidance on solar project design to maximize these environmental benefits.

 

Habitat Coordination

The DNR suggests early coordination between solar project developers and the DNR’s Regional Environmental Assessment Ecologists and the Endangered Species Review Coordinator to identify potential wildlife issues for resolution early in the development process. DNR staff will help identify high value habitat in a proposed project area and environs for the project developer to consider while investigating and/or designing the project.

Additionally, DNR Staff will help identify high value natural resources like native prairie, wetlands, calcareous fens, and other sites of biodiversity significance for the project developer to consider before acquiring or leasing the land from the landowner. This initial review helps developers select sites with easier and less costly development potential and also informs how the developer may implement native seed plantings or habitat design to extend habitat.

For detailed information about coordination between solar project developers and the Minnesota DNR, please read the DNR’s Commercial Solar Siting Guide (May 2016).

Prairie Establishment and Pollinator Habitat

Since the mid-1800s and Westward Expansion, the large majority of Minnesota’s native prairie has turned into valuable agricultural land owing to its naturally rich soils. The small percentage of remaining natural prairie consists of scattered fragments across the State. These fragments contain many species of concern and of value to agriculture.

In particular, native pollinators and domesticated bees pollinate around 30 percent of crops in the United States and 70-80 percent of flowering plants in the Midwest. These insects play a key role in seed production, agriculture, and the ability of natural flora to provide environmental functions like filtering stormwater, improving soil quality, and providing wildlife and small game habitat. To these ends, the MN Board of Water and Soil Resources created a State Pollinator Plan in an effort to protect, expand, and enhance pollinator habitat.

A significant part of the Pollinator Plan includes developing the acreage under solar projects and in their buffer areas for pollinator plantings. BWSR established a Habitat Friendly Solar Program to promote planting and management of wildlife habitat with a focus on pollinators, gamebird and songbird habitat within solar project footprints. The Habitat Friendly Solar Program stems from a voluntary legal standard with which solar project developers may choose to comply in order to market their solar projects as “Habitat Friendly” (Minn. Stat. Sec. 216B.1642). Some counties and municipalities have started mandating ground-mounted solar projects meet the Habitat Friendly standards to ensure the realization of environmental benefits for the decades’ long duration of solar projects. Though establishing low-growth prairie can take as long as five years with a higher upfront cost, research modeling indicates environmental and long-term operational cost reductions are worthwhile. Unlike turf grass, low-growth prairie requires mowing once every 2-3 years. Additionally, the deep prairie grass roots infiltrate stormwater and improve water quality in surrounding surfaces waters, unlike gravel and turf grass.

The precise flora that make up natural prairie varies by region, geography, hill slope and soil type. The Minnesota BWSR has sanctioned several low-growth, pollinator seed mixes to account for these variations and accurately replicate the natural (or near natural) flora for solar project plantings in the different locations. In coordination with BWSR, the Minnesota DNR maintains a Prairie Establishment and Maintenance Technical Guide for Solar Projects (July 2019) to help solar project developers establish prairie in the very first years of the solar project’s lifespan. Minnesota BWSR suggests solar project developers plan how they intend to qualify as Habitat Friendly by use of a scorecard, the Solar Site Pollinator Habitat Assessment Form for Project Planning.

Solar projects planted with prairie pollinator seed mixes provide valuable ancillary benefit to the remaining fragments of natural prairie. Though solar projects planted with low-growth prairie cannot replace natural prairie, it does expand valuable habitat for the many native pollinator species and plants of concern in Minnesota. 

Wildlife

In addition to beneficial pollinator habitat, solar project footprints also enhance wildlife habitat for small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds when designed appropriately. Fences can be designed with small openings for small mammals and game birds to move under or through the fenced area of a solar project. Fencing designed with how it might redirect larger mammals or alter larger wildlife travel corridors is an important consideration. Fencing that unintentionally directs wildlife unintentionally onto roadways should be avoided out of concern for traveling motorists, as well as those species.

The DNR recommends using 3-4 strand smooth fencing (commonly known as deer fence) without barbed wire. This more open-type fence allows small wildlife to move freely across the solar project footprint. Additionally, fencing height is preferably 8-10 feet high to ensure deer to not attempt to jump the fence and risk entanglement injuries.

Community Planning

 

Community planning as it relates to siting solar projects in or adjacent to communities is critically important. When solar energy is included, traditional planning and zoning tools should help communities make informed decisions about solar energy projects, including how and where those projects should be constructed.

Working proactively to establish local rules before major solar projects come along can be a way to decide what your community thinks about solar and how that influences where and how it wants to site solar in advance. Research has shown that engaging in community discussions can lead to better outcomes.

 

Property Line & Roadway Setbacks

Many jurisdictions treat large solar installations as the principle structure and require them to meet the minimum building setback for the zoning district in which they are sited. Occasionally, the non-residential property line distance is specifically listed and tends to range from 50 to 75 feet. Required setbacks from the centerline of public road ways generally range from 100 to 150 feet.

Residential Dwelling Setbacks

Jurisdictions range in setbacks from residential dwellings not located on the subject property from 200 feet to 500 feet. Some jurisdictions will have more robust vegetative screening requirements with a shorter residential dwelling setback distance. This practice provides more latitude in developing a field for solar use, while affording aesthetic protections to neighboring land uses.

Getting the rules right

 

As part of the Grow Solar Partnership, a toolkit was assembled to equip local governments in Minnesota with information regarding solar development as it relates to planning, zoning, and permitting.

The purpose of the toolkit is to provide resources that will assist communities in addressing barriers to solar energy installations in a manner tailored to each community’s needs. The Minnesota Toolkit was given the 2017 Innovation in Planning Award by the Minnesota American Planning Association.

 

Screening & Aesthetics

Solar energy facilities have a low height, few slow or non-moving parts, no smell, and make no audible sound.

All the same, some community members may have questions about the land use change to solar and about solar project aesthetics. Thus, many local government regulations focus on managing aesthetics for the welfare of their communities. The following are common methods local governments use to regulate solar fields.

Fencing

 

The National Electric Code requires substations and solar installations be guarded. Local jurisdictions translate this into a fencing requirement. A preferred practice is to fence a CSG or utility-scale installation with wire woven agricultural fencing (“deer fence”) with wooden posts. Some jurisdictions request the bottom of the fence be several inches off the ground to allow for ground-nesting birds and small animals to pass. Deer fence can maintain the “rural feel” many townships prefer and is less costly than chain link fence while effectively guarding the installation.

 

Screening

 

Where possible, existing vegetation, terrain, or natural berms are preferable for screening large solar installations from the view of nearby properties. Where jurisdictions determine additional screening is warranted, most of them require a “vegetative height buffer” of 6 feet usually in front of fencing. Often, the vegetative buffer specifically mentions conifers though some jurisdictions allow for dogwoods or other species with low mature height and environmental or horticultural benefits. The preferred practice is to allow the required vegetative screening to grow into compliance, usually over two to four growing seasons. The visual screen typically has a high opacity percentage, meaning a neighboring property cannot see the solar array especially in the green of summer. Remember, if a jurisdiction determines additional screening is justified, the screening requirement should not affect the operation of the solar array or require vegetation where that vegetation cannot grow.

 

Power & Communication
Lines

 

Some jurisdictions require power and communication lines running between banks of solar panels within the footprint to be buried to better facilitate pollinator habitat. Other jurisdictions allow these interior lines to be above ground, provided the lines are not higher than the top of the solar modules (approximately 12-15 feet). Nearly all jurisdictions require power and communication lines running to electric substations or similar interconnections (usually visible on the edge of the installation) to be buried underground and/or at grade. Exceptions are provided for shallow bedrock, water courses, other natural landscape elements, or electric utility requirements which make it unreasonable to bury the lines.

 

Common Concerns

 

It is not uncommon for people to have concerns about things that are new, and often solar is new to communities where it is being sited.

We've done our best to offer straightforward responses to many of the concerns that seem to arise most often, including stray voltage, waste, glare, and decommissioning.

 

Stray Voltage

While stray voltage can be a concern in certain situations, it’s unlikely to arise when work is done by professional contractors in partnership with electric utilities.

A number of utilities in Minnesota came together to create the Minnesota Stray Voltage Guide, which outlines the steps that farmers, electrical contractors, utilities and their advisors can take to discover and resolve stray voltage concerns on livestock farms. When farmers and utility companies work together, stray voltage concerns are more likely to be satisfactorily resolved.

The Guide includes a list of common causes and a farm wiring checklist to address possible causes and ways to avoid on-farm stray voltage. It also goes through what the farmer and utility should expect when conducting a stray voltage investigation, including the proper testing procedures for stray voltage. Although this Guide is focused on cattle and dairy farms, the processes and procedures are relevant to all types of livestock and livestock housing facilities.

Panel Recycling & Solid Waste

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency allows solar panels to be managed in a manner similar to electronic waste. Panels discarded by households may be disposed of in municipal solid waste. In contrast, the same panel models discarded by a commercial entity (likely from a large solar development), must be properly disposed of in a materials recovery or recycling facility. There is not yet a robust market of available solar panel recyclers in light of the current low and inconsistent flow of panels in the waste stream. Solar panels are resource rich, including silver, copper, indium and other precious metals, though over 90% of a panel is glass and aluminum. Nonetheless, recycling solar panels should be recognized as a cost to local jurisdictions though the commodity recycling market is unknown 20 years into the future. The MPCA is crafting solar panel recycling policy based in part on statutes in other states, including North Carolina, New Jersey, and Washington to address this issue. 

Decommissioning

Nearly every jurisdiction requires a detailed decommissioning and land reclamation plan to ensure solar panels and associated facilities are properly removed at the end of their useful life (approximately 30 years), or after not in use for 12 consecutive months. Jurisdictions require removal of all structures, foundation, conduit, wiring, and associated equipment and restoration of soil and vegetation to its “pre-developed condition” (usually a farm field). Importantly, every jurisdiction requires financial surety to fully decommission a solar site. This may include a bond, letter of credit, or establishment of an escrow account to cover any risk of decommissioning. The amount of financial surety for jurisdictions tends to range from 110% to 125% of the estimated costs to meet the requirements of the decommissioning plan. The financial surety is also subject to the governing jurisdiction’s approval. In terms of land decommissioning, most counties put in place a decommissioning bond requirement. That way, if or when the solar farm is decommissioned in 25+ years, the pilings are pulled out and recycled and the land returned to its original use. The decommissioning plan usually requires protecting against soil compaction and maintaining soil strata. The bond also protects the county against unforeseen costs (drainage issues, road wear and tear).

Property Values

When large solar arrays are being installed, it’s quite common to hear from nearby residents that they’re worried about property values being impacted. The 100 MW North Star Solar installation in Chisago County is Minnesota’s largest, and produces enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes. The Chisago County board recently put out a detailed report that even this huge solar array is having no impact on property values.

Runoff

Some communities that will be hosting large solar installations raise concerns about stormwater runoff, assuming that water will rush off the panels and create erosion and flooding problems. This is not the case typically, and easy to avoid with design, construction, and groundcover practices. Being careful about soil compaction during construction, planning for how water will flow on the site, and planting solar-specific prairie grass mixes under and around panels to infiltrate stormwater have been very successful practices in Minnesota.

Glare

Concerns about glare, or sunlight reflecting off panels, can typically be reduced with panel orientation, fencing, or trees. Glare is of particular concern if the solar array is near an airport. The concern with solar facilities near airports is the glare they can cause and they are generally restricted by airport zoning adopted at a local level.  MnDOT acts as a technical resource to these communities by providing guidance on the use of the Solar Glare Hazard Analysis Tool (SGHAT) to meet the federal policies. The FAA “strongly encourages” use of the tool in the area around the regulated airport lands but does not require it.

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