Solar panels
Credit: Werner Slocum / NREL

Recent state appeals court rulings are starting to shed light on how far Minnesota counties can go to limit solar development on agricultural land.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled in three cases involving rural counties that rejected developers’ plans to build community solar farms. The court has rejected denials by McLeod County twice in the past year, though last month it affirmed Stearns County’s right to deny a solar project. 

The cases reflect a growing tension between the solar industry and rural county officials who fear solar will diminish property values, destroy agricultural landscapes and potentially harm livestock.  

“There is an ongoing kind of evolution — and we’re seeing this in Stearns County, specifically — of an attitude that sees solar as impacting rural character,” said Brian Ross, vice president of renewable energy for the Great Plains Institute.

It’s not a new issue. The appellate court ruled in at least two other community solar farm cases since in 2017, both in Carver County. One affirmed the county board’s right to deny a developer a conditional use permit; the other overturned its decision against a solar farm proposal. But the conflicts are happening more often because of the increasing number of projects, said Ross, who has worked with communities on solar zoning issues for several years.

The Stearns and McLeod cases had similarities, with both counties arguing the community solar farms would be on prime agricultural land after developers sought conditional use permits. 

McLeod County’s board voted 3-2 against a plan by developer US Solar for a small community solar farm of 500 kilowatts even though board members conceded the conditional use permit application met its criteria. The court reversed the action in July 2021, finding that the county failed to prove several of its assertions involving the garden’s negative impact on surrounding land values. It also questioned whether the property could be defined as “prime agricultural soil.”

This year the appellate case reversed McLeod’s rejection of another US Solar project asking for conditional use permits for two solar farms on 17 acres. The issues were largely the same as the first one except that the county raised a greater concern about stray voltage, in which electrical currents leak from damaged equipment or power lines, potentially affecting animal health.

In 2020, solar developer Impact Power Solutions (IPS) asked Stearns for a conditional use permit to lease 7.5 acres of a 113-acre parcel in Paynesville Township for a 1-megawatt solar garden. The site was adjacent to another solar farm and within a mile of four other solar projects. Stearns County commissioners rejected the application, prompting an appeal from the solar developer.

The difference in the Stearns County case was that it had already established a rule in its comprehensive plan allowing commissioners to preserve agricultural land even when an applicant fulfills other conditions, Ross said. The land was zoned agricultural, too, so the developer needed a conditional use permit. The court rejected IPS’s argument, agreeing with the county that the property was agricultural land and used legally sufficient reasoning to deny the conditional use permit.

Stearns County’s comprehensive plan encourages solar development in some areas. The county has a well-established and progressive solar policy featured in a case study by the Great Plains Institute. The comprehensive plan’s language supporting solar and prime agriculture led the judges to “defer to [the county] because they did all their procedures right,” Ross said.

Ross believes what’s happening in Stearns and McLeod counties could be a harbinger of trouble ahead. Xcel Energy, which manages the community solar program, has a backlog of dozens of projects waiting to be approved that would add more than hundreds of megawatts of power to the grid. The utility has plans to build thousands of megawatts, some on its own land, but it may have to lease property for projects.

Both counties have begun to see solar projects clustering near interconnection points, Ross said. Part of this is a direct result of a state rule limiting community solar sales to residents living in the county where the solar is located or adjacent counties. That’s sparked a flurry of projects in counties near urban centers with available land. St. Cloud is the seat of Stearns County, while McLeod sits just outside the Twin Cities metro region. 

The Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association has lobbied the Legislature to change the contiguous counties regulation to allow for a broader geographic footprint for community solar. Logan O’Grady, the association’s executive director, said when counties kill solar projects, they lose the potential for high-paying jobs and leave developers with wasted hours of work.  

It’s also arbitrary, he argues. “The Stearns County decision means that approval for solar projects continues to be decided based not on the merits of projects but rather the political opinions of changing elected boards,” O’Grady said. “For every industry, not just solar, the process for siting and permitting a project should be stable, predictable, and fair. These processes should not swing with elections.”

Eric Pasi, chief development officer for IPS, said the Stearns case raised issues commonly seen by developers in rural areas. “Many jurisdictions in Minnesota and around the country are concerned with land use, particularly in areas where agriculture is dominant,” he said. Yet research has shown the state could power 70% of its energy needs with solar by using just 0.4% of agricultural land, Pasi said.

A growing number of solar farms employ “dual use” strategies by hosting pollinator habitats or agrivoltaics that combine solar with agriculture, Pasi said. Solar can help “heal and restore the land by not continuously farming or using pesticides,” he said, using native vegetation. Projects with those assets still don’t always convince county boards debating whether to grant them conditional use permits, however.

Ross predicts that the problem will eventually solve itself as more communities see the benefits of solar and the importance it holds in decarbonization. Since only a handful of counties have anywhere near the solar activity level of Stearns — which has dozens of pending solar farm applications — he does not think others will copy its conditional use permit language.

Nathan Schmalz, McLeod County commissioner, represents the township where the US Solar projects are being built. After hearing about how Stearns regulates solar farms, he hopes that McLeod might incorporate a similar approach in its comprehensive plan to protect farmland.

McLeod is adding regulations regarding setbacks for solar farms and requiring interconnection agreements before ruling on conditional use permit applications. Schmalz said landowners have begun to air fears about having too many solar farms and the board is worried about the loss of agricultural land. 

McLeod has approved many solar projects, he said, but at least six that have been approved have not begun because of supply and labor problems, he said. Community solar lost some of its allure to county officials when regulators restricted community solar to 1 megawatt, a limitation that eliminated the solar energy production tax that solar farm owners pay counties, Schmalz said.

Now the county board’s attention has shifted to working with US Solar to ensure the company carries enough bonding to decommission solar installations in McLeod when that time comes. “There are so many unknowns and it’s hard to put a value on something that’s going to be decommissioned decades from now,” he said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.