Residents of Wilkin County may soon be able to take part in solar energy. After a presentation from Novel Energy Solutions’ permitting specialist Scott Tempel for a conditional use permit, the Wilkin County Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the permit for a new Minnesota community solar garden to be built in the town of Wolverton. According to Tempel’s presentation, the conditional use permit is for a one-megawatt garden to be built along Highway 75 on 10 acres.
After the approval from the planning commission, the permit was then recommended to be put in front of the county board for additional voting at the follow-up meeting. County commissioners Dennis Larson, Neal Folstad, and Eric Klindt were present for Tempel’s presentation and will play a role in the next voting session. Should the commissioners of the county board approve the permit, the Minnesota community solar garden will be the first of its size, Breanna Koval, Wilkin County Director of Environmental Services confirmed.
During his presentation, Tempel described the purpose and operations of the Minnesota community solar garden. Like other facilities around the country, the installation would allow homeowners in and around the county to subscribe to a unit of energy. Those that participate take an active role in reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide, thus having a positive effect on the environment.
In exchange for their part in reducing greenhouse emissions, subscribers receive up to a 10% discount on their monthly utility bills. Typically, billing for community solar includes receiving the general electricity bill, then a second statement that includes the credit. The 10% discount is off retail costs of electricity since utilizing solar energy is cheaper than general power.
According to Tempel, the Minnesota community solar garden allows consumers to participate in clean energy without having to front the cost of solar panels and other infrastructure. The costs of installing private panels puts solar energy out of reach for many households, along with those that cannot accommodate the sizable arrays or are renting and simply don’t have an option. Community solar options bridge the gap to make renewables accessible to all households within the region of a solar installation.
After the final approval from the county board, Novel Energy plans to take over the permitting, development, and construction of the Minessota community solar garden. Additionally, the family-owned company will maintain operations and be responsible for decommissioning the arrays once they have run their course. Tempel spoke of the business model, stating it’s strictly to “own and operate” solar installations.
The Minnesota community solar garden is planned for construction on privately-owned land. To secure the location, Novel Energy will need to enter into a leasing agreement with the current property owners. For as long as Novel will want to have the site operational, it will need to pay an agreed-upon fee. To guarantee the safety of the installation, security fencing will be installed. According to Tempel’s presentation, the solar array will also include a pollinator mix beneath the development. Novel will also be responsible for landscaping to prevent overgrowth that can reduce the land’s value and damage the installation.
This is just one of several Minnesota community solar gardens for Novel. Tempel noted that the company is always looking to play an active role in the development of new cost-saving installations. Novel is also currently seeking more empty parcels of land that can be leased for the development of future solar facilities.
Breanna Koval expects that other community solar businesses will follow in Novel’s footsteps. According to the county director, several have already been speaking with landowners to discuss leasing agreements, however, no projects have been submitted for approval. Koval believes that Minnesota’s flatlands make it a prime location for such developments. However, it’s ultimately up to the residents to decide whether ceasing agricultural production is worth the leasing agreements for solar panels.
However, Tempel believes that the development of Minnesota community solar gardens would have a positive impact on agricultural parcels. He stated that, over the 25-year lifespan of the development, it regenerates the soil, making it more nutrient-rich to promote better crop growth. Tempel noted that the development would only remain active for 25 years, at which point it will be deactivated and decommissioned. Barring any future plans, the leasing agreement will then cease and the land will turn back over to the owner.
The process of securing land isn’t an entirely simple one. On top of finding a landowner that’s willing to part with their property for more than two decades, the land must also be fit for a community solar garden. It must have the right zoning or fall within rezoning guidelines, be large enough, and not impede on neighborhoods that may petition against the development. Novel Energy has had little issue finding properties throughout Minnesota, with 50 active community solar gardens. Tempel states that Novel is hoping to increase its portfolio with an additional 130 developments. The long-term goal is to move into Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Illinois.
With the increase in community solar sites, Tempel believes solar energy will start to become a cheaper commodity. At the time Tempel started with novel Energy six months ago, it was using 330-watt panels. As of Tempel’s recent presentation, Novel has moved onto 400-watt panels for a greater capacity and more efficient facility.
Currently, Tempel and Novel Energy are awaiting county board approval for the Wilkin County Minnesota community solar garden. Upon approval, Novel can move forward with potentially helping an additional 100 to 150 consumers.