The Wilkin County Planning Commission heard a presentation from Scott Tempel, permitting specialist for Novel Energy Solutions, for a conditional use permit to install a 1 megawatt community solar garden on around 10 acres of land along Highway 75, near Wolverton, Minnesota.
The planning commission unanimously approved the conditional use permit, and recommended it go to the Wilkin County Board for approval at their next meeting. County commissioners Neal Folstad, Dennis Larson and Eric Klindt were present at the planning commission meeting.
If approved by the county board, the project would be the first of its size, Wilkin County Director of Environmental Services Breanna Koval said.
Community solar gardens are a subscription-based product, Tempel said. Anyone in the county or adjacent counties can sign up to buy power from the garden, and would save about 10 percent off of retail costs because solar is currently the cheapest energy source, he said.
“(Community solar gardens) give your average consumer the chance to purchase renewable energy without having to put up all the upfront infrastructure costs,” Tempel said. “A lot of people simply can’t afford to put a solar system on top of their roof, or their roof is shaded, or they live in an apartment building.”
Novel Energy is a family-owned Minnesota company, and they would permit, design, build, maintain and decommission the solar panels garden.
“It’s our business model to own and operate these. We’re local, we’re going to be here, we’ll maintain them,” Tempel said at the meeting.
The garden would be on privately-owned land, meaning Novel Energy would enter into a lease agreement with the property owner and pay them to have the array on their land. The panels would be protected by a security fence, and they would use a pollinator mix under the array. The company would also landscape around the array to ensure weeds are kept under control.
The company has community solar gardens all over Minnesota. Tempel said they are always looking for more landowners who are interested in entering a lease with the company, so building more gardens in Wilkin County is not out of the question.
Koval can foresee more companies following Novel Energy’s footsteps. Many have already begun speaking with landowners in the county, she said.
“Because we’re so flat, it’d be a perfect breeding ground for solar panels and community solar gardens,” Koval said. “It’s just that residents have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of taking their cropland out of production to put up solar panels.”
A community solar garden would actually help restore farmland over it’s 25-year lifespan because it regenerates the soil, Tempel said at the meeting.
After 25 years, Novel Energy Solutions would plan to decommission the garden. He said the company pays landowners a per-acre lease around three to five times more than a cropland lease.
“We need to have a willing landowner, the right zoning and be close enough to a substation that has the capacity for it,” Tempel said at the meeting. “So when we get all those things together, we have a potential project and that’s when we come in.”
Novel Energy has around 50 community solar gardens, and they’re hoping to build 130 more in the next few years, Tempel said. The company is rapidly growing, and their ambitions have taken them to Illinois, Michigan, Maine and Oregon.
Tempel said he only expects solar energy to get cheaper for the consumer as more companies invest in it. When Tempel began at Novel Energy around six months ago, the company was using 330 watt panels. They are now using a new, 400 watt panel.
“In six months, we increased that much efficiency. You multiply that over years — it’s kind of like electronics — our computing power keeps increasing exponentially,” he said. “I anticipate solar will be more pervasive, more efficient and cheaper.”
The solar garden in Wilkin County would move forward upon county board approval, and Tempel said they would begin notifying residents when subscriptions are available. It would be able to service around 100-150 customers.