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County seeks moratorium on wind, solar projects

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A proposal to place a temporary moratorium on large wind and solar projects will be open to citizen comment at a public hearing set by the Swift County Board of Commissioners for May 7 at 9 a.m.
The temporary ordinance is needed to give the county time to conduct “discussions and hearings to determine whether a longer-term zoning ordinance shall be adopted and implemented to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare of the residents of Swift County,” the proposed moratorium says.
Swift County has been approached by landowners and township officials with concerns about large solar systems and wind energy systems, Environmental Services Director Scott Collins told commissioners at their April 2 meeting.
At their March 19 meeting, commissioners discussed whether the current wind and solar ordinances adequately addressed the evolving wind and technology and the need for wording that dealt with decommissioning green energy projects.
Swift County’s solar ordinance was adopted in 2020 and its wind ordinance in 2008.
A lot of things have changed in recent years with the size of wind towers and the area being taken up by solar arrays, Collins said. Those comments and input from other citizens led Collins to recommend placing a moratorium on large wind and solar projects until it can review its ordinances.
At a feedlot conference in St. Paul recently, Collins said he spent a lot of time with other county environmental services directors, and their discussions focused on wind and solar energy projects. “They are out there, and they are coming,” he told commissioners.
Interest in wind and solar projects is going to increase with Otter Tail Power Company and Missouri River Energy Services pursuing construction of a 345-kV transmission line from Big Stone, S.D., to Alexandria. A segment of the transmission line would run through western Swift County.
It is a very large transmission line – picture the power poles that run along Interstate Highway 94. The new transmission line going to the Alexandria area will connect to towers that go into the Twin Cities.
Otter Tail and Missouri River say the new power line will allow more low-cost renewable energy to flow from wind and solar generation resources to customers and reduce congestion created by an increasing amount of renewable energy trying to access the power grid.
It is expected to take nearly seven years for additional planning and construction before the lines are finally energized in mid-2030. Collins said he thinks wind and solar projects will be considered more aggressively when the 345-kV line is close to completion.
There currently are no solar or wind permit requests before the county, he acknowledged.

Who pays for decommissioning?
“Decommissioning is by far the biggest concern for the counties because (these projects) can be sold many times over before the project life is done,” Collins said. There is the potential for these companies to file bankruptcy and walk away from the responsibility of decommissioning their solar fields or towers, he said.
The steadily increasing size of renewable energy projects deepens concerns about decommissioning cost.
Xcel Energy’s solar field near Becker covers more than 3,000 acres. In March 2023, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a solar field of over 1,500 acres in Dodge County in southeastern Minnesota.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the height of commercial wind turbines, measured from the ground to the middle of the blade hub, has increased by 73% over the past two decades to about 322 feet. The blades can be 165 feet long.
Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, said the county doesn’t want to look like it is not open to solar and wind projects. “I want to be supportive, but I also want to be able to have something for decommissioning. We haven’t done anything for decommissioning on anything else, so this is somewhat new.
“We have hog barns that could have been taken down years ago but haven’t. We have gravel pits that should be leveled off but haven’t because it is cheaper to get a permit every year,” he said.
There are also issues about decommissioning of cell phone towers, turkey barns, and large dairy facilities. The county can’t single out one business, Commissioner Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, said.

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