Solar array

Solar arrays billed as “solar gardens,” have begun to pop up in Meeker County, with the first receiving County Board approval in 2017.

Meeker County commissioners on Dec. 1 cleared the way for two new solar energy gardens.

The County Board approved a pair of conditional use permits, both for properties in Swede Grove Township north of Grove City, that will allow construction of the solar energy operations.

Michael and Christine Buer of rural Grove City, and Brian DeGroot of Prinsburg own the two pieces of property, which are located in close proximity to each other on County State Aid Highway 25.

Though both conditional use permits received unanimous approval, Commissioner Mike Housman expressed concern about the long-term implications of the solar gardens. In particular, Housman said, the $30,000 bond required by the county for decommissioning a solar garden probably is not enough.

“(The bond) is a paltry amount of money to cover future decommission,” Housman said. “That’s $7.50 per panel. You can’t recycle a refrigerator for that.”

Each of the farms is to include approximately 4,000 solar panels and generate a maximum of 1 megawatt of power. They are contracted to provide electricity to the Xcel Energy power grid.

Housman said his concern was not directed at the specific applications discussed Tuesday, but more about the solar energy gardens — and the potential for enormous cost to remove them at some point in the future.

“We’re going to be paying the piper,” Housman said.

Commissioner Beth Oberg said she had similar concerns, adding that “we’re not the only ones starting to worry about it. It’s a nationwide issue.”

While the Buers were pursuing the solar garden “with the best of intentions, It’s a more systemic issue I’m worried about,” Oberg added.

County Board Chairman Bryan Larson was less concerned, especially he said, with the Buers, who he said are a third-generation farm family. The investment in the solar garden is “just a drop in the bucket” when compared to their traditional agricultural business. “I’m not worried about that one at all,” he said.

Larson also said that wiring for the solar field is buried 3 feet underground, ensuring that it would not be an issue in the future.

Commissioner Steve Schmidt also said that, in addition to the bond, the contract includes other clauses that “are supposed to fall into place” to reduce or eliminate issues when or if the solar garden is decommissioned.

The County Board approved the county’s first solar garden in September 2017, on a 10-acre site located just east of the city of Watkins. That garden was designed to generate 13,050 watts of electricity.

Xcel Energy Center lists what it calls four community-based solar gardens currently in operation in Meeker County that supply electricity to its grid. In addition to the Watkins garden, operated under Sagittarius Community Solar Garden, the list includes solar gardens in Acton Township and Dassel Township.