Like many parts of the US, communities in rural Minnesota are experiencing growing interest among residents and businesses in development of an untapped, local economic resource: solar energy. To help communities understand and plan for development of solar resources, the Great Plains Institute has engaged local leaders to identify key gaps in information, challenges, and opportunities associated with such development.

As part of that effort, we’ve completed a set of surveys on solar development; first with cities and counties in Minnesota and, more recently, a survey of leaders in the state’s townships. The over 1,700 townships in Minnesota are mainly located in rural areas and will play a key role in decision making on energy development in the state. Township governments in Minnesota provide governmental services, mainly in rural areas with much of the land use dedicated to agriculture.

Solar development trajectory in Minnesota

In 2007, Minnesota reached a milestone for solar energy development–the state had finally seen 1,000 kilowatts (KW) of solar power installed on individual roofs scattered across the state. That 1,000 KW, or one megawatt (1MW), of solar energy capacity was providing an equivalent amount of energy to the annual power consumption of about 140 homes.

Ten years later, in 2017, Minnesota saw an average of more than 1 MW of solar capacity installed every day. The pace in 2018 is similar, with almost 870 MW now installed to date.

Chart 1: Minnesota’s Solar Capacity as of December 2017.

This transformation demonstrates the dramatic changes seen over the past decade for both the cost of solar energy and the market for solar-produced electricity.

This rate of change is forecasted to continue. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, is forecasting in its long-term resource plan on the order of 3,000 MW of solar energy deployment over the next decade. Statewide, solar energy could meet 10 percent of Minnesota’s total electricity sales, or 5,000 to 6,000 MW of solar energy installations during this time period (see the MN Solar Pathways’ Solar Potential Analysis Report).

The impact of solar energy development on Minnesota’s townships

What does this mean for Minnesota’s township communities, the people and businesses in mostly rural areas of the state? Several realities, both opportunities and risks, are now facing township elected and appointed officials:

  • Solar, along with other local energy resources, presents a major economic opportunity for communities. Solar resources, the direct sunlight falling on unshaded areas of the landscape, is a valuable- and often untapped-economic resource, and one that will increase in value into the future.
  • The market for these solar resources is driving new kinds of development. Utilities and large corporations are seeking to contract with developers to harvest and buy the solar resource via solar-produced electricity. Where there is a market for development, developers will come.
  • Solar development is local development. Many private, local landowners are becoming interested in selling their solar resources, and many farmers are diversifying their income stream with a new “crop.” At the same time, neighbors of these developments can become concerned with the change in land use that is next door, across the road, or more broadly across the landscape.
  • Communities have choices. Communities can embrace the opportunity of this new form of development, strive to protect their community’s traditional land uses and character, or try to find a mix and balance of old and new.

Township Solar Survey

As part of the recently released Minnesota Solar Pathways Solar Potential Analysis Report, GPI has surveyed local governments on their perceptions of solar development. The Minnesota Association of Townships worked with GPI to conduct a survey of townships earlier this year. Previously, a similar study was conducted with cities and counties.

These surveys focused on four types of solar deployment that local governments are likely to see, each of which has distinct implications and presents both opportunities and risks for the community:

  1. Residential solar–on rooftops and in yards of primarily single-family homes.
  2. Commercial solar–on rooftops or grounds of businesses, including small to large installations.
  3. Community solar or shared solar deployment, where subscribers are retail electric consumers (e.g., businesses, residents, and institutions).
  4. Utility scale deployment–large solar farms, owned by or contracted to utilities.

The survey resulted in 22 townships responding, including rural townships, metro-area townships, and urban townships outside of the Twin Cities metro area. Respondents included both appointed and elected officials. The previously completed city and county survey had responses from over 100 local governments, with respondents being primarily staff, along with elected and appointed officials.

Below is a summary of the results from the township survey:

  • Knowledge and trusted sources of information. The majority of townships reported seeing at least some solar development in their community, while none of the responding townships reported solar installations on township facilities. In the survey, respondents reported a low to moderate knowledge or familiarity with solar energy. Respondents described decision makers and citizens of their townships as slightly or moderately knowledgeable about solar energy, recognizing a need for additional information to make decisions about solar development. This finding was consistent across survey responses, including a question about what technical assistance would be most helpful for township officials. Township officials, when looking for trusted sources of information about solar energy or development, would most trust a peer township who has experience with solar energy or solar development. The electric utility was also identified as a trusted source of information.

Chart 2: Trusted Source of Solar Information, townships. Townships identified peer townships with solar experience as the most trusted source of solar information.

  • Impressions of risks/benefits of local solar development. About three quarters of the respondents believed that local solar development offered some benefit for the township. Townships identified environmental impact reduction and energy independence as the biggest community benefits to deploying solar in their township. Significantly, over 20 percent of respondents believed that solar development posed no risks to the community. For those who did perceive some risk, the most significant perceived risks from local solar development were associated with impacts on aesthetics and displacement of agriculture and other types of development.

Chart 3: Biggest Benefits to Local Solar Development. Both township and city/county respondents identified reduced environmental impact and energy independence as the biggest benefits to local solar development. More township respondents chose “none” as the biggest benefit than city/county respondents.

Chart 4: Biggest Risks of Local Solar Development: Both township and city/county respondents identified aesthetics and displacement of other development or agriculture as the largest risks of local solar development.

 

  • Solar on township facilities. The survey asked respondents about local perceptions of solar deployment on the township’s facilities. Respondents identified the biggest benefits to this type of solar deployment as reducing environmental impact, cost savings, and none. At the same time, most respondents also believed solar energy was too expensive for the township to install a system on its own facilities.
  • Expectations of future solar development. In spite of the rapid growth of solar energy in Minnesota, most survey respondents believed that private sector solar development was unlikely to be significant in their township, for either rooftop solar or solar gardens/farms. A few respondents experienced development pressure from the rapid growth of solar gardens, but most did not report significant activity, nor did respondents anticipate more in the future.
  • Identified barriers to development. When considering rooftop solar on residences and businesses, township officials perceived that the most significant limitations to this private sector development were high cost of installations and lack of knowledge about solar (consistent with earlier responses about the community’s familiarity with solar). When considering rooftop solar on residences and businesses, township officials perceived that the most significant limitations to this private sector development were high cost of installations and lack of knowledge about solar (consistent with earlier responses about the community’s familiarity with solar).
  • Assistance needed. The survey asked townships to identify the type of assistance needed to address this new form of development. Respondents identified the need for assistance on financing and economic development related to solar resources in the township, as well as general information on solar markets and technologies.

 

Chart 5: What Assistance Would Your Township Benefit From? Townships identified solar financing and economic development opportunities as the information they would most like moving forward.

 

Comparison of results across surveys

GPI compared the results of the township survey with the city and county government survey on several of the questions. Township responses showed only a few notable differences from the city/county results.:

  • City and government survey respondents perceived greater benefits to adding solar to their own facilities than did the township respondents.
  • Township respondents were significantly more likely to state that solar development provides no local benefits (only 15 percent of respondents, but notably higher than 4 percent from the city and county survey).
  • While townships identified lack of cooperation from electric utilities and community opposition to large-scale solar development as primary barriers, respondents to the city/county survey saw a lack of appropriate land as the primary constraint for solar development.

Looking forward

All townships in Minnesota will face decisions about solar energy development. Every Minnesota community, and most individual properties, have economically viable solar energy resources. Minnesota’s total solar resource is so large that harvesting less than one percent of it (as measured by land utilization) would produce more than the state’s total electricity production.

The University of Minnesota mapped out the state’s solar resources on a highly granular scale and created an interactive Minnesota Solar App in 2016. The app can be used by anyone, including government officials or property owners, and enables users to see the high-value solar locations at a 1-meter resolution. These data can also be mapped to community boundaries in order to assess the economic opportunity of local energy resources.

While gaining an understanding of the resource potential is important, the opportunity for solar development in any township is shaped by factors other than economically viable resources:

  • Utility rate structures affect the viability of rooftop installations.
  • Access to primary distribution or transmission lines and substations affect the ability of developers to build solar gardens or farms.
  • Local land use and economic development regulations and programs can enable or scuttle solar development opportunities.
  • Availability of utility programs. For example, townships within Xcel Energy service territory are seeing solar garden development, while those served by other utilities do not have similar programs to enable third party development.

Much of the opposition to solar projects in rural areas is tied to uncertainty about how solar energy development affects surrounding properties, viability of agriculture, or future development opportunities. Less uncertain is that solar energy development is growing as an economic benefit to landowners and a community development opportunity that diversifies tax base and supports development jobs.

By incorporating planning tools, providing technical assistance, and increasing community engagement (see example), the concerns of community or surrounding property owners can be balanced with the property owner’s interest and the community’s benefits from potential solar development.

This post was adapted from an original post that appeared in the Minnesota Township Insider, 2018 Fall Issue.

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