NORTH BRANCH, MINN – Solar power is reshaping the landscape in Chisago County north of the Twin Cities.
In a change that has surprised and angered some residents, eight major solar power projects, including Minnesota’s largest, are proposed to be built here next year on more than 1,000 acres of land now mostly used to grow corn and soybeans.
It puts Chisago County, population 54,000, at the epicenter of a solar boom fueled partly by state renewable energy policies. The Chisago projects will generate five times the solar energy now produced across Minnesota — and more than offset the electricity consumed by the county’s 20,000 households.
“It is going to be an unusual amount of solar in that part of the state and it will test the tolerance for an industry that is essentially benign, meaning pollution-free,” said Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner and now president of GreenMark, which helped develop the state’s current largest solar project, but has no part in the Chisago development.
The county is a prime location for solar because it’s near the Twin Cities, has open land that’s not already slated for development and is the site of major transmission lines and substations. All of the Chisago solar power is to be sold to Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, in some cases through its community solar program that allows customers to subscribe to central solar arrays.
Yet not everyone in this semirural county wants to see green fields turned into green energy.
The largest project, North Star Solar, covering an area equivalent to two Lake Calhouns, will entirely surround seven rural homes. To appease those unhappy homeowners, North Star agreed to buy their properties at above-market prices — the first U.S. solar project to take such a step, the developer says.
Six other homeowners will be hemmed in by North Star Solar to the north and another solar project to the south, with the potential for more solar to the west. Angry that they’re not getting buyout offers, those homeowners say solar panels will be visual intrusions, will diminish property values and could wall off wildlife and pose health risks from magnetic fields.
“We are literally caught between two monsters, and neither one of them is going to offer us anything,” said Paul Carpenter, one of affected homeowners on 367th St., about 15 miles southeast of North Branch.
Community Energy Renewables of Radnor, Pa., the company developing North Star Solar, says its field of solar panels will be screened by new and existing trees, and will be 71 feet to 91 feet away from Carpenter’s street.
“They will not be able to see the facility,” said Eric Blank, president of Community Energy, which will build and own the $180 million North Star Solar Project.
Blank said Community Energy agreed to buy out the seven “islanded” homeowners because “they are completely surrounded in a very unique position compared to anything we have seen. …”
Homeowners who took the buyout agreed to a confidentiality clause and are not giving interviews. But one of them spoke out before signing the contract.
“We do not want to move,” said Kristine Anderson at a public meeting in the Lent Township Hall earlier this year. “None of us had our homes up for sale. … These are not junk homes. These are nice houses in the country, which is why we moved here.”
Winners and losers
Some of the winners in the Chisago solar boom are people who leased their open land to energy companies for 25 to 30 years. Although the terms are confidential, residents say the payments exceed what landowners get for leasing land for farming.
“They came up … and dangled money in front of them and said, ‘Oh, we are going to plant all these trees around it and it’s going to be great,’ ” said Rick Ramberg, whose home is adjacent to property that his brother leased to Edina-based Geronimo Energy for a solar project.
Ramberg and his wife Cheryl raised four kids in the home they built in 1997. They have a few neighbors, but are mostly surrounded by woods and fields. He is a concrete and masonry contractor. She works as a nurse in North Branch.
“None of us is mad at any specific people,” Rick Ramberg said about the lease deals. “It is their land, and their decision, but it affects other people.”
He and other neighbors said they’ve gotten limited and sometimes inaccurate information about the solar projects. In interviews, they expressed doubt that the solar panels can be screened from view by North Star Solar or Geronimo’s Sunrise Community Solar Garden.
Geronimo, which has built a reputation for landowner-friendly policies in the wind-power industry, did not respond to requests for an interview. According to county records, Geronimo’s solar project will be set back 800-900 feet from the nearest homes and screened with trees.
Still another fear is that vast solar farms will hurt nearby property values. Community Energy plans to sell the seven acquired homes to new owners. That could reveal whether a surrounded-by-solar price difference exists.
“Do people expect there might be a difference? Well, of course,” said County Assessor John Keefe. “The only way you can quantify it is through sales.”
Tax base and jobs
While some residents worry, local governments and schools stand to gain financially from the solar projects.
North Star’s estimated property and solar production taxes are expected to be $362,000 a year, a tenfold increase over the property’s current tax payments as farmland.
About 250 to 300 construction workers are expected to build the North Star project and related power line, although just 12 permanent jobs are projected.
Of the eight solar arrays, North Star is by far the largest, with an output equivalent to the electricity used by 25,000 homes. It passed a key hurdle in December when an administrative law judge recommended its permit be approved.
Although the other Chisago solar projects are smaller than North Star, six of the them will equal or exceed the size of the state’s current largest solar installation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The stream of solar projects has been a bit of whirlwind. “I guess it is the coming thing,” said County Board Chairman Rick Greene. “With countries around the world saying green energy is the way to go, I guess we are probably ahead of everybody else.”
The solar boom also is a reminder of a disappearing era.
“There was a time when our economy was driven by agriculture,” said Jim Stein, a Lindstrom, Minn., insurance agent who chairs the county Industrial Development Authority. Today, he added, “the majority of people who wake up in Chisago County go to work someplace else.”