This week, the North Star solar farm north of Minneapolis – St. Paul began producing electrical power for the first time. North Star is the largest solar farm in the midwest and will supply enough electricity to power 20,000 homes. The 15,000 solar panel installation took about 6 months to construct after all the necessary permits were obtained from local land owners.
Xcel Energy will purchase solar power from North Star, which will be part of a major expansion in solar energy in the state, said Xcel Minnesota President Chris Clark. He likened the expansion to what happened several years ago with wind energy. “We’ve had great success with wind. We’ve seen a tremendous maturing of the wind industry,” Clark said, “and a project like this one really shows that solar is coming quickly and is going to be a great part of our system as well.” State regulators have just approved Xcel Energy’s 15 year plan to reduce carbon emissions by 60% and generate a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Not everyone in the community supported the North Star project, which installed solar panels on privately owned land. Barb Holcomb, one of the landowners benefiting financially from the project, says some of her neighbors threatened to stop the project. “They were very angry because of the traffic and the noise and they wanted to see the wildlife,” she said. “They didn’t want changes.”
But her husband Clifford Holcomb says putting solar panels on land that is no longer suitable for corn and soybean production makes a lot of sense. “There’s no money in farming,” he said, “not around here, anyway.” While the solar installation is replacing corn and soybean fields, there is still room around the panels for native prairie plants that attract bees and other pollinators.
For the Holcombs and some of the other landowners, the North Star project is allowing them to move on from farming at a time in their lives when most other people their age are retired. Dennis Anderson and his father Phil were the first landowners to sign up.
“He needed something to force him out of farming so that he could finally retire at age 97,” Dennis Anderson said of his dad. The elder Anderson is proud of the contribution his land is making to the solar energy revolutjion. “To get a source of energy like the sun for free, that’s pretty hard to beat,” he says.
In other energy news in Minnesota, Minnesota Power also announced last week that it will shut down two of its coal fired generating plants — Boswell Units 1 and 2 in Cohasset. The plants were first built in the 1960’s but have become uneconomical to operate. The utility says it will shut down both facilities by the end of 2018 as part of its move away from coal power and toward more natural gas and renewable energy.
Are the two events related? Not directly, but then again, everything is connected to everything else in today’s world. Without mandates from regulators to add more green power to the electrical grid and reduce carbon emissions, Boswell 1 and 2 could have continued to operate for many more decades. Not only Minnesotans but everyone in the United States and Canada will benefit from an electrical grid that gets more of its energy from low carbon and renewable sources.