Solar energy project details emerge during city council, developer special meeting

Dean Leischow, managing director at Minnetonka-based Sunrise Energy Ventures, LLC, wants to make Monticello the greenest city in the state of Minnesota by filling the old Silver Springs Golf Course site with power-producing panels.

City officials are concerned the project will adversely affect land use in the area.

Solar energy development was the focus of an hour-and-a-half special city council meeting conducted April 27.

According to City Administrator Jeff O’Neill, at last Monday’s night’s solar array discussion involving Sunrise Energy Ventures, Monticello council members and city staff had a number of goals.

Land use, economic development and infrastructure implications of a proposed 462-acre solar project were reviewed by city staff.

This aerial map shows the potential land use and infrastructure elements associated with Sunrise Energy Venture’s proposed plan to fill the old Silver Springs Golf Course site with power-producing solar arrays. Monticello city leaders and staff conducted a special workshop April 27 to discuss the Minnetonka-based company’s project plans. (Graphic City of Monticello)

Leischow provided additional details about his company’s 35 to 50 megawatt project while touting tax and utility production incentives of a solar farm that would land directly in Monticello’s orderly annexation area, property that the city has planned to annex for future development.

Minnesota’s installed solar capacity, as well as the overall size of individual facilities, is expected to increase significantly over the next several years, stated a March 2015 Minnesota Department of Commerce Solar Siting and Environmental Review Working Group final report.

A combination of federal and state government policies promoting solar generation and market forces have significantly reduced the installed cost per watt of solar generating capacity, the report also stated.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature established a stand-alone solar energy standard that requires, with certain exceptions, 1.5 percent of investor-owned utility electrical sales come from solar sources by the year 2020.

“We would be better off if this project went away,” O’Neill said. “We have no desire to have this sort of thing in our growth area. We don’t think it’s good for the city. It just doesn’t fit our comprehensive plan.”

However, with that said, O’Neill admitted the city might not have a say about the project because solar development is a state mandate governed by Minnesota Public Utilities Commission [PUC].

“We want to make sure if that’s the case, the city has plans in place,” O’Neill said. “Right now, we are trying to identify costs and elements that need to be addressed if this project lands in our growth corridor.”

Leischow and O’Neill confirmed Sunrise Energy Ventures would meet again this week to talk about solar development.

“I think when we first started out, things were a little adverse,” Leischow said. “I think the city wasn’t really educated on solar or what we were doing. That’s pretty typical when we come into into a community. People think we are going to build a Frankenstien’s monster right next to their house. That’s not the case.”

Leischow explained the potential property tax and utility production incentives Sunrise’s project could bring to the city.

“The city of Monticello would get between $6.5 million and $7 million over 25 years,” Leischow said. “We want the residents of Monticello to participate as well, so we would make the an energy credit program for solar available to every resident in Monticello that’s an Xcel Energy customer. When we take a look at those numbers, it’s about $14.5 million back to the community over the same time period.”

O’Neill said the property value of land from a mix of urban uses would far greater than what a solar field would generate.

“If you are a resident trying to take advantage of this program and you are trying to get your electricity bill capped, they were presuming that every single Monticello household would qualify for this program, and actually, you have to have a certain credit rating to apply,” O’Neill said. “We have no idea of how many of the 4,800 housing units would qualify for what they are proposing. Those numbers really need vetting.”

According to O’Neill, the biggest question facing Monticello city staff is managing the potential development impact of a solar project if PUC approval does occur. That was one reason for last week’s special meeting.

Leischow told city leaders that Sunrise Energy currently has the Silver Springs Golf Course property under contract.

“We have three or four different solar field configurations that we can adjust on the property to stay out of the way of some of the near-term development and roads,” Leischow said, adding Sunrise Energy is “very open” to continue talking about a potential solar project footprint.

“Why this piece of property? A couple of reasons,” Leischow said. “It has three distribution lines bordering it leading to the same substation. We need to hook up somewhere. That makes it very attractive to us. There’s a transmission line that some of you might see out there, but we can’t hook up to that. We have to hook up to a distribution line.”

Leischow said the solar project site would be bordered by a 6-foot to 7-foot tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. There would be five to six months of construction activity and thousands of steel posts driven into the ground to prepare the site for solar panels.

“When we build this, we are guaranteeing you a seat at the table with these dollars,” Leischow said, further touting the project’s financial incentives. “To be accurate, energy credits start out by being a 10 percent reduction in an energy bill. If you look at history over 25 years, it’s been about a 3 percent annual increase. There’s only been a couple of years where it went down. You get savings and a hedge against inflation.”

Leischow acknowledged that city officials were struggling with developing a solar energy production ordinance.

“This provides an alternative to people putting solar panels on their home,” he said. “No matter how they slice the present value, this is a better deal for them,” he said.

O’Neill said one of the requirements of the orderly annexation plan is that the area be served by city sewer and water no matter what type of development occurs.

City Planner Steve Grittman said if the Sunrise Energy project moves forward, it would remove a significant amount of land from potential development.

“City staff’s position is [this project] would negatively impact the ability to finance future infrastructure,” Grittman said. “It would have the effect of displacing city growth into other areas that would be difficult to serve with city infrastructure. What we want to be able to do is finance the infrastructure.”

Grittman said that sewer and water trunk lines and new roads would still need to run into the area.

Philip Carlson, a senior planner with the St. Paul office of engineering consultant company Stantec, also attended last Monday’s solar development meeting.

“I think it might be helpful to step back and ask what if Sunrise wasn’t at the table,” he said. “What if you just had an empty golf course, what’s the likelihood of development? It could be 15 to 20 years before there could be residential development pushing in this area. We think there’s a lot of land here that could be absorbed before this becomes a problem. In no way do we want to impede the orderly and successful growth of Monticello. We don’t think we are in the way.”

Bret Weiss, president of WSB & Associates, Inc., the city’s consulting engineering firm, also addressed the solar project’s potential impact in his comments.

“My recommendation to the Monticello City Council [regarding this project] would be wait and see what happens with the interchange,” Weiss said, referring to s potential highway access north of the project.

“Once we get three lanes on Interstate 94 coming out from the Twin Cities and Highway 610 goes in [in the Maple Grove area] we don’t know what’s going to change,” Weiss said. “I can’t sit here for sure and say what’s going to happen. I think there are advantages with this solar project and some revenues that could comes into the city and opportunities for infrastructure, but there are some impacts. I would not be pushing the tax side of this.”

The Monticello Times asked Leischow to address the solar project’s potential impact on a group of existing homes on 116th Street N.E.

“We’ve bumped up against existing residential before,”  Leischow said. “Sometimes we add [screening] berms or add trees; there are a lot of things that could be done. There’s no data out there that says property values go up, down or sideways if you have residential property next to a solar facility. We would do some sort of screening.”

Leischow said Sunrise wants to reach a point where the company is close regarding an agreement. “We know early on the city sent a letter to the PUC saying they didn’t want somebody railroading a permit [for a solar energy project]. The next step is sitting down and understanding the utility fees and assessments.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]