The Wright County Board of Commissioners took action at its April 27 meeting concerning an amendment to the county’s solar ordinance while at the same time attempting to dispel myths about the board’s plan for solar energy in Wright County.
Wright County Planning and Zoning Administrator Sean Riley came before the board with Ordinance Amendment 21-3, which was heard by the Wright County Planning Commission April 15 and included a public hearing. He said the county board is the only governing body that can approve or deny ordinance amendments.
“What is in front of you is the language on (Amendment) 21-3, essentially establishing a minimum amount for a developer’s agreement for financial sureties on solar farms,” Riley said. “We have not had a minimum amount before and that has left us a little bit exposed to debating what our starting point should be. Through the process – the solar work group and the Planning Commission – this language is in front of the county board.”
The amendment addressed one of the primary reasons for the requirement of setting a minimum escrow/surety requirement based on the size of the solar farm. The purpose of the surety is to have money available in the event the solar company involved either goes out of business or walks away from a project and cleanup is required. The county was at odds with one solar industry company because it placed a very small surety deposit and, since the county didn’t have a minimum amount in the original ordinance, it would be very difficult to enforce without language clearly stating the amount required.
The amendment, which can be seen here (https://www.co.wright.mn.us/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/9285?fileID=19532), set surety deposits of $100,000 for solar farms that produce 1.0 megawatts of electricity or less, and increasing levels of $150,000 (1.01-1.49 MW), $200,00 (1.5-1.99 MW), $250,000 (2.0-2.99 MW), $300,000 (3.0-3.99 MW), $350,000 (4.0-4.99 MW) and $400,000 (5.0 MW and above).
Commissioner Mike Kaczmarek said the Planning Commission was split on its view of whether to recommend the escrow/surety amounts – some thinking it was too high and others thinking it was too low given the cost associated with removing the solar panels and returning the land to its pre-existing condition. He added that nobody from the solar industry was present for the public hearing, including the three members of the solar work group that was formed to study the ordinance.
Commissioner Darek Vetsch said one of the primary reasons this amendment was brought forward on its own was because, once the amendment was approved, a handful of projects that had been submitted an application and begun the permitting process that were put on hold by the moratorium could proceed.
The board approved the amendment unanimously and set a public hearing for 9:30 a.m. at the May 18 board meeting. But, after that business was done, several commissioners expressed concern over misconceptions about the solar farm moratorium.
“For some reason, we’ve been getting a lot of emails (saying) that we’re against solar, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Board Chair Mark Daleiden said. “We’re just trying to get everybody on the same playing field.”
“A lot of people are thinking that we’re getting rid of solar in the county,” Commissioner Christine Husom said. “This is a clarification that this is because, to protect the taxpayers, we need to have the assurity that there is going to be enough security of funds available in case of decommissioning or they walk away (from a project) or whatever the circumstances might be. We’re addressing that portion of (the ordinance) to protect our taxpayers. We are one of the larger providers – our county – of solar. We certainly have been friendly.”
“The public has a misconception of what we’re doing,” Vetsch added. “Mostly what we wanted to do was to take the burden from staff on trying to determine what the surety amount should be. (With the amendment), there’s no discussion. It’s black and white in terms of what should be paid based on the size.”
Following the May 18 public hearing, it is expected the county board will authorize those solar farm applications that were pending/in progress before the moratorium was put in place to be allowed to proceed. The expectation remains that the moratorium will end sometime this summer so those with new applications will have time to complete their projects in 2021 before winter arrives.
To see the minutes from April 15 Planning Commission meeting, click here: https://www.co.wright.mn.us/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/9285?fileID=19530
To see public comments submitted prior to the April 15 public hearing, click here: https://www.co.wright.mn.us/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/9285?fileID=19531