Saturday, August 23, 2014

Goodhue County Fields Interest From Solar Energy Companies

GOODHUE — After years of controversy with the wind industry, Goodhue County is preparing to tackle another renewable energy push in solar power.

Mike Wozniak, the county's planning/zoning administrator, said he's heard from at least three energy companies interested in leveraging federal tax credits to fill excess space on local transmission lines.

Goodhue County does not recognize solar power as a permitted use on agricultural land, but Wozniak and other staff members have been researching the issue in hopes of introducing a draft ordinance to the planning advisory commission at its July 21 meeting.

A new ordinance regulating solar power could be approved this fall after multiple public hearings, Wozniak said. No solar proposals have been filed with the city, but at least one is in the middle of a feasibility study for a project that likely would cost well more than $100 million, he said.

"I think there are companies that are checking this out all over the place," Wozniak said. "I think they're examining — just like wind — where is all the capacity so they can get some sense about whether they can fit this here.

"If (they) want to propose things, that's (their) prerogative. But we're proceeding and their timetable may not be our timetable," he said.

The push for solar energy is being driven by two main factors:

• Last spring, the Minnesota Legislature mandated that four major power companies generate 1.5 percent of their power through solar energy,which adds to the state's existing renewable energy mandate of 25 percent by 2025. The solar mandate will result in 30 times more sun-powered energy by 2020.

• The federal government is supporting solar expansion by offering a 30 percent tax credit to any solar project that is operational by the end of 2015.

Those incentives have spurred strong interest throughout southeastern Minnesota, said Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel. He said seven of 11 local counties reported contact from energy companies interested in developing solar power at a recent regional meeting.

However, Rechtzigel doesn't see it "blowing up the same way wind did" — even though Winona County recently fired its administrator over a snafu involving a large solar proposal. That comment refers back to the $180 million wind project sited near Zumbrota that created national headlines during its four-plus-year permitting battle that was successfully halted by two citizen opposition groups in 2013. More than $15 million was spent by developers before New Era Wind LLC owner Peter Mastic pulled the plug last September.

The 100-megawatt Aurora solar project created headlines in March when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave preliminary approval for Geronimo Energy's $250 million project sited across the state — including arrays near Pine Island, Dodge Center and Zumbrota.

That 20-site project would be the largest in Minnesota history and represents a sevenfold increase from the state's current solar capacity. However, it soon could be rivaled by a major project in Goodhue County.

RES Americas, a multinational company with headquarters in the United States, Canada and Chile, held a public meeting last month in the city of Goodhue to discuss a potential project that would reportedly cover 600 acres and create 78 megawatts of power. Company officials confirmed Thursday they're in the "early stages of the development process."

RES has acquired a 300-acre parcel and could seek another 300-acre plot in order to create two 39-megawatt projects that would use the "interconnection facilities" previously built by Mastic's failed wind project, the company said. The company declined to identify the exact sites being considered, but county officials said RES is looking at areas north of Goodhue and in Vasa, which is northwest of Red Wing.

Leia Ryan, a Goodhue City Council member who attended the June meeting, said she appreciates the early community outreach after the way the wind drama divided the rural community.

Mastic recently attended RES Americas' initial public meeting, which has some people wondering about his involvement with the company. RES Americas said Thursday via statement Mastic's involvement is limited to ownership of New Era Wind, which "may own certain rights for interconnection" that could be used in RES' solar proposal.

While Wozniak and Rechtzigel also downplayed Mastic's involvement, they raised separate concerns about the state's solar permitting process.

Each questioned why Geronimo Energy is being allowed to combine 20 small solar projects spread across multiple counties for one permit from the Public Utilities Commission without requiring local permits. On the flip side, RES Americas says it would not combine its two projects, thereby avoiding PUC scrutiny in favor of local permits for two 39-megawatt projects that are sited in close proximity.

"Why are these projects allowed to pick who's doing the regulating?" Rechtzigel said. "It shouldn't be that way. Rules should be in place where you go through the process, it's fair and the rules apply to everybody."

"I'm not sure it's totally sorted out whether these (solar) projects should be looked at individually or whether you should tally it up to determine who regulates it," Wozniak added. "Who makes that call? Ultimately, I think there could be some leadership from the state required."


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