ST. CHARLES — For Al Heim, solar power is green.
And he's not just talking about carbon-free, environmentally safe green.
"I make more than $1,000 a month on average," said Heim, talking about the two solar arrays at his home – one 40 kilowatts DC current, the second 50 kilowatts – on the outskirts of St. Charles.
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Heim has a plan. Once his solar arrays are paid off – each cost about $140,000 – he plans to cash in as an energy generator. That will happen about nine or 10 years after each was installed, with the 40 kw array going online Dec. 30, 2015 – the end-of-year rush was to qualify for a then-available tax credit – and the 50 kw system coming online in July 2018.
The two arrays on his property power his home and his machine shed, respectively, but both arrays produce more than enough power that Heim sells his electricity back to the power company, Rushford Village-based MiEnergy Cooperative, to earn enough credits that he doesn't pay an electric bill.
The loans taken out to build the systems are paid off by a combination of tax incentives, capital depreciation and good old-fashioned money, but it's money he would otherwise spend on his electric bill, of which he has none. That's when he'll start pocketing the money he makes on electric generation. It'll make a nice piece of his income when he's ready to wind down his farming career.
But there's more to his love of solar energy than money. He's helping out his community.
"Between my two systems, I should be powering nine homes if they're all using the same amount of electricity as I am," Heim said.
The ground-mounted systems are fairly maintenance free, he said. The rain keeps dust and bird droppings from collecting. In the winter, as long as a corner of each panel is exposed, they'll produce power. Keeping a corner clear normally happens naturally, but if not, Heim said he has a broom that he can use to clear off a bit of snow.
As for the electrical systems, each is equipped with a monitoring system that relays data and any problems to the installer. The whole system is warrantied, and the panels are guaranteed to keep producing power at 85 percent their original rating for 20 years.
The support posts are buried 7 feet, and he said he doesn't worry about natural disasters like hail or debris from strong winds.
"The panels are designed to take the impact of a 1-inch steel ball at 50 miles per hour," Heim said.
He's such a believer in solar that he's even added an off-the-grid solar system to his cabin near Whitewater State Park.
As a farmer, Heim said he's spent his life caring for the land, so transitioning away from carbon-based electricity just made sense as well as dollars.
"It’s the right thing to do," Heim said, "and I did it as an investment."
As solar booms, state and county officials consider regulatory needs
A proposed solar array on a hilltop overlooking the Mississippi River near Dresbach brought a question from Winona County commissioners at a board meeting in April: How much solar energy is enough for one landowner?
The 1-megawatt solar array, a size known as utility-scale since arrays are designed primarily to generate electricity to be fed to the grid rather than providing the power for a home or business, was the source of opposition by neighbors and county residents who live far from the river bluff hilltop.
"Our ordinance says we should preserve farmland," said Rushford resident Eugene Hansen. "This (conditional use permit) application doesn't. This CUP also doesn't preserve the natural beauty of the area."
Audrey Helstad, a neighbor of the property owners who proposed the project, listed a host of complaints ranging from "dangerous" reflections hitting car windows and a ruined vista along a federal- and state-designated scenic byway to stray voltage and disruptions to the bucolic neighborhood during construction of the project.
"Apple Blossom Drive is a unique area," said Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward, noting that despite its agricultural zoning, the area was more residential than farmland.
Ward added that the project would be the third for the landowners, all concentrated in a small geographic area, a practice known as "stacking," where solar developers and landowners cluster solar arrays in a small area.
"A lot of county ordinances haven't kept up with the change in the way solar farms are established within the county," Ward said.
Blue Earth County Administrator Robert Meyer said a year ago that his county added additional setbacks to its solar ordinance, but as solar has boomed, he's heard concerns from county residents. Those concerns include everything from glare issues to allegations of interference with TV and radio signals.
"We were hearing from some residents that they were getting surrounded by solar," Meyer said. "We thought now that we're seeing this development activity, let's update and make sure our ordinance is reflective of that."
That meant addressing concerns about the density of solar arrays, setbacks from neighbors and having plans for decommissioning solar systems after their permitted lifespan has ended.
"We’ve had a number of community solar gardens that’ve been established," Meyer said. "Some developers are maintaining them in an environmentally appropriate way, and others let theirs go. So our ordinance addresses that."
Louise Miltich, planning director for Energy Environmental Review and Analysis at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, said she's heard the same concerns at the state level. A big one is decommissioning.
"Who has responsibility? Who bears the cost?" Miltich said, echoing questions she's asked and has been asked. "People want to know what the process of decommissioning looks like."
The Public Utilities Commission put together a work group on the issue, she said, focusing on the financial assurances that need to be put in place at the beginning of the permitting process. That, she said, has led to decommissioning plans with more detail.
As for keeping not-in-my-backyard neighbors happy, she said, "my group lives to think about smart siting. It comes from years of experience."
The clean concerns
One of the questions that's been asked at a variety of county board meetings across Southeast Minnesota is what happens to the solar panels once their lifespan is done. Solar panels contain toxic metals including various alloys of cadmium, selenium and gallium in addition to hexafluoroethane, polyvinyl fluoride and lead.
"Ninety-eight percent of a solar farm is recyclable and reusable," said Ralph Kaehler of Novel Energy Solutions.
Kaehler said the reason there is not a huge industry around solar panel recycling at the moment is that the U.S. solar energy industry has only just boomed, so most solar panels produced are still well within their warranty phase. Once more panels wear out, he said, the economy of scale will allow the recycling side industry to develop.
Miltich said recycling of solar panels is something state agencies like her's and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are keeping an eye on.
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From the start
In 2013, Minnesota passed legislation to allow community solar gardens, basically solar arrays where investors see the benefits of owning a part of a large array on their household electric bills.
One of the first Minnesotans to take advantage of that was Brian Vetter, a farmer from near Kasota in Blue Earth County.
Vetter said he lives in a rural area with about 15 houses in close proximity, and wondered why the group couldn't band together to generate its own power.
"I thought if I put up enough solar we could all get power off it," he said. One of his neighbors had lived on the East Coast and gave a favorable report of solar energy. "That's where the whole idea blossomed. I thought, I'm game for giving it a try."
Each of the six subscribers on that original 9.4 KW community solar garden saves about 10 percent on their bills, he said.
Since then, he's added a second 9.4 KW residential system with subscribers near his father's home, and a 3 MW utility-scale system on 15 acres.
Like other landowners with major solar projects, he heard the usual complaints, but worked with his neighbors, accommodating their concerns with a fence and trees to screen the array.
Vetter understands that some farmers cringe at the idea of taking acres out of production and turning them over to solar.
Kaehler said solar power generation could easily slide into the million or so acres of Conservation Reserve Program land, land being replanted with native grasses, to serve a dual purpose.
Vetter's own large array was placed on a hilly area with clay soil that's less suitable for row crops.
"If I had my druthers about it, I'm not in favor of taking productive ag land off the line," he said. "The rate of return on the property was quite a bit better than the return to raise corn or soybeans."
Year by year, solar is becoming a shining star in energy production
In 1993, 10 kilowatts of solar power helped light the state of Minnesota.
That's enough power to run roughly one home, provided everyone turns off the lights when they leave the room.
Over the succeeding two decades, the state didn't add much solar-generated electricity to its portfolio. In fact, it would take another 15 years to top a megawatt – considered to be utility-scale today – in Minnesota.
Last year, Minnesota added 140 megawatts of solar power – so far the peak year was 2017 when 403 MWac was added to the grid – bringing the state's total up to 1,200 MWac on the grid, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. And while the industry has throttled down after the peak in 2017, experts expect to see a lot more solar power coming to an open, sunny field near you.
Right now, only 3.1 percent of Minnesota's electricity generation comes from solar arrays. But as recently as 2015, that number was only 0.005 percent, meaning in five years the amount grew by a factor of 620.
Louise Miltich, planning director for Energy Environmental Review and Analysis at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, said, "Our group is preparing to see a lot more large solar projects coming in the door."
Peter Teigland, a policy associate with Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, said the growth is like a snowball rolling down the hill, picking up speed and power along the way.
For example, as more and more solar systems are purchased, the cost of producing solar panels will decline, he said. That makes solar energy even more affordable, meaning more can be purchased, driving the cost down again and again.
Teigland said cost and good policy are big factors behind the explosion of solar energy in Minnesota.
Policies include the community solar garden legislation passed in 2013 that allowed communal solar systems not directly attached to a home to sell their power back to a utility at a dollar-for-dollar rate, meaning people investing in solar arrays could see offsets on their utility bills.
As for cost, the increased efficiency of solar panels means that for a similar investment, arrays are pumping out more juice, making them more profitable for investors.
Solar, which is an example of distributive power generation, meaning lots of small power generation sites rather than one big one like a coal plant, also helps power companies financially, he said. Distributive generation means less loss of power through heating of power lines over long transmission routes. This means lines wear out more slowly, leading to less maintenance, he added.
Finally, Teigland said, there are some communal aspects of the solar boom.
"Solar is kind of contagious," he said. "When your neighbors see solar on your roof, they ask questions about it."