The battle over land use: Farm crops versus solar farms

Published 5:59 am Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Hannah Yang, Minnesota Public Radio News

Neil Witzel has lived in Canisteo Township of rural Dodge County his entire life. A produce farmer, he loves waking up each morning and hearing the songbirds as they fly across the foggy October sky.

“The sunrise and the sweetness of the day,” Witzel said. “We’ve had very mild temperatures so far this year. It was dry. The summer we had the drought, but you know, you love the land.”

Email newsletter signup

The township supervisor has a produce stand where people can drop off money and take home pumpkins and vegetables. Cars and trucks rumble down County Road 13. It’s peaceful out here, but things are going to look different in a few years.

“Those that live east to here won’t have much scenery,” Witzel said. “Because, they’ll be looking at [solar] panels. That’s kind of the bottom line.”

Canisteo Township will be the site of the Byron Solar Project — a 200 megawatt solar farm. Developers estimate it will cover between an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 acres with a portion of that being within a fence and under solar arrays.

That’s larger than Central Park in New York City. EDF Renewables started working on the project in 2018. It’ll generate enough electricity to power about 35,000 Minnesota homes.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the permits and the project aims to be connected to the power grid sometime in late 2025. Dodge County performance standards also require solar farms to be screened from residences by earthen mounds or berms, fencing or landscaping of 80 percent opacity, according to PUC filings.

But, in this agricultural community where land is important to local identity, the project and the speed it developed, has generated emotion and tension.

Township Chair Loren Torrens said it left a bad taste in his mouth once he and others heard how far it progressed by the time they got involved in conversations.

Many people support moving from fossil fuels toward climate-friendly solar energy projects.

But, in rural Minnesota, there’s reluctance and tension over the space needed for these projects because to some, it also means losing prime ag land.

In Canisteo Township residents worried also say will the solar installation will ruin the area’s natural beauty.

“It had already been basically signed, sealed and delivered up high enough, so we’re not going to stop it,” Torrens said. “And we didn’t get a chance to vote on whether or not [it] would be a good area for it. I think people at least would have liked to have had a chance to say yes or no on what the project was.”

However, that’s not how Byron Solar project manager Scott Wentzell saw the discourse. He said that EDF Renewables incorporated feedback from neighbors and elected officials into the process.

“Our intent is to be a good neighbor, we’re going to be in the community for 40 years, and I think we’ve built a strong foundation for that,” Wentzell said. “And we’re committed to continuing to work with the neighbors as things come up.”

EDF Renewables said it’s signed leases with 15 local landowners to build solar arrays on their land. The company estimates the solar project will result in about $300 million being invested into the region, generating tax revenue for the county and township. Also while the project will be there for years, it will eventually be removed.

Wentzell added that he sees the Byron Solar project as a preservation method for prime ag land and he believes it’ll be beneficial for Canisteo Township and Dodge County too.

“There was no other alternative,” Wentzell said. “Here in Minnesota, it’s actually hard to demonstrate because so much of the state is designated as prime farmland. I don’t accept the dichotomy of solar removing prime farmland. I don’t think that the prime farmland versus solar argument is a valid one.”

The land use equation is complicated.

Between 2001 and 2016, Minnesota lost about 180,000 acres of ag land, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Between now and 2040, the state is on track to lose about another 300,000.

While losing farmland is a concern for the state, solar energy projects only make up a “very small percentage” of the actual loss of prime farmland, said Michael Zastoupil, agricultural and food systems planner, and that residential development is the main driving cause.

“Cities expanding in particularly low density residential development, or suburban sprawl, is probably the number one factor. Another factor is actually just that there are a lot of retiring farmers out there that don’t know who they’re going to pass on their farm to,” Zastoupil said. “And at the same time, there are a lot of emerging farmers that are looking for land.”

Another factor is the growing number of retiring farmers and less emerging farmers entering the agriculture sector.

The Ag Department is in a unique position that requires a “balancing act,” supporting the state’s renewable energy goals, but also protecting farmland to ensure there’s enough for ag production — including food, ethanol and textiles to name a few.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the landowner, it’s their decision,” Zastoupil said. “So, if a farmer wants to lease some of their land for solar, wind, we support that, and we can help them. And, if they want to protect their land for agriculture, and just keep it in farming, we support that as well.”

‘Neighbor against neighbor’

In rural communities, land use issues can pit neighbor against neighbor. However, renewable energy projects such as wind and solar bring these small towns into unfamiliar territory. These are new industries capitalizing on resources only now being captured for profit.

That’s what Brian Ross, vice president of the renewable energy program at the Great Plains Institute, a nonprofit based in the Twin Cities, hears often. He said these conflicts will become more frequent as renewable energy markets grow.

“That’s kind of the consequence we’re seeing in this dialogue in rural communities is that this is a new land use, one that they have not seen before, one that they haven’t in the parlance of a social change,” Ross said. “Now all of a sudden, there’s a change happening, and there are inevitably people who don’t like that change. But, that doesn’t change the fact again, they do have an evolving market.”

He said this does not dismiss or invalidate genuine concerns about the loss of prime farmland by landowners or anyone living in rural communities. However Ross said the blame for the tension over land use does not lie solely with solar energy projects.

“What we advocate for with county governments is to look rather than just at solar’s impact on agricultural production, or prime farmland, but all development, and say, how do we as a county, kind of address the loss of productive farmland for any kind of development and come up with a plan around that?”

Back in Canisteo Township Neil Witzel said some already sold their properties and moved on.

Although Witzel said that he and others aren’t against renewable energy, they’re frustrated about how voiceless they felt in the process. Now, they sense they’re losing what they loved about living in rural Minnesota, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.

“I mean, it’s a done deal,” he sad. “We tried to [talk] with legislators and other things, and in the end, that’s what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it at this point.”