by CHRIS ROGERS
If everything goes the way developers hope it will, rows of shiny, black panels may soon replace crops and hay in fields across the county. The Winona County Board approved the county’s third solar power plant last month, a three-acre “solar farm” or “community solar garden” near Rollingstone. Two larger solar farms, around 30 acres each, were approved nearby in Rollingstone and in Ridgeway, but are wrapped up in a disagreement with Xcel Energy. Even as they endorsed the new solar farm, county commissioners agreed to the Winona County Planning Commission’s recommendation that the county needs to beef up its regulations on solar power plants. Sometime after it tackles a proposed ban on frac sand mining, while it considers new regulations for dog breeding kennels, and in between its normal work of reviewing permit applications, the Winona County Planning Commission will consider new rules for the county’s burgeoning solar industry.
There are three main areas where some county officials have said the current regulations on solar farms are lacking. First, under the current ordinance, 30-acre solar power plants are subject to the same setback requirements as solar arrays designed to power a single home. Whether they cover 10 square feet or one million, solar panels only have to be 50 feet away from neighboring properties. For many neighbors in Ridgeway, that was too close.
Second, County Board member Steve Jacob and some Planning Commission members have raised concerns about solar power plants taking too many acres of agricultural land out of production. Keeping agricultural land in production and preventing development from breaking up farmland is one the county’s top goals, and county officials have debated whether solar power plants are in line with that goal. The solar power plants do not ruin tillable land. The posts that support the panels are driven or screwed into the ground without pouring any concrete, and can be pulled out when the power plant reaches the end of its life in 25-50 years. That is a long time, though, concerned officials say. Approving a permit to take top-quality tillable land out of production for 25-plus years gave Planning Commission member and farmer Rick Speltz heartburn this spring. “That is prime, prime, prime,” he said. Fellow Planning Commission member Don Evanson called for the county to adopt rules to keep solar power plants off prime soil.
Jacob has suggested that solar power plants should be encouraged on bluff tops that cannot be farmed.
Third, Jacob, commissioner Marcia Ward, and some Planning Commission members are concerned about whether local solar power plants will ever be cleaned up and returned to agricultural production if the companies behind them go bankrupt. Similar to bonds posted for reclamation of mines, the County Board and Planning Commission required one solar developer to post financial assurance bonds after 15 years to guarantee the funds needed to decommission its power plants. Evanson has criticized that approach, saying that to provide any real assurance, the bonds should be posted before construction. Others have questioned whether any county staff will remember to enforce that requirement in 15 years.
The solar power issue has created a sort of role reversal among county officials. Those who usually advocate for property rights have argued for more regulation and environmental protection supporters who usually argue for regulations advocate against them. Commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Jim Pomeroy, and Greg Olson all questioned whether the advocates of added rules for solar power plants were over-regulating the industry. “It almost seems like the talk is to almost like regulate them out of business,” Olson stated in an interview. “I think its a reach,” Olson said of some county officials' concerns. “It’s kind of contradictory to what they’ve been preaching the whole time, that these people who own the land have all these rights. And here’s something that is harmless for the most part.”
It is not typical for the Planning Commission to ask for the County Board’s permission before studying and making recommendations on zoning issues, but that is what the group did in this case. Last month, the County Board voted 3-2 to approve the Planning Commission’s request to study the issue. Kovecsi voted with Ward and Jacob to approve it. Olson and Pomeroy dissented.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.