New rules for solar plants?

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New rules for solar plants?

June 20, 2016

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.

SOURCE:  Winona Post

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