Commissioners review policies for renewable energy facilities

Stevens County has been considered a farm or agricultural county for many years, but that may be changing. Multiple renewable energy organizations have been interested in constructingfacilities such as wind farms, solar farms and BioGas facilities. The Stevens County Commissioners held a work session on June 27 to discuss some of these facilities and what will be needed as far as zoning, permits, policies and procedures. Members of the Stevens County Planning Commission and representatives of the BioGas proposal company were also present at the meeting. 

Wind turbines

The first renewal energy source discussed was for additional wind energy. The county has received multiple inquiries from developers seeking to construct wind turbines. In general, these proposals are for 50-60 turbines, that are 4 MW each.  Each turbine will impact two thirds of an acre once constructed, with the entire installation producing a proposed 200-300 Megawatts of energy. The company would build and maintain access roads and the energy would be transmitted to a nearby transmission station.

The county currently has a Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS) Ordinance that was established to regulate the installation and operation of wind towers not otherwise subject to siting and oversight by the State of Minnesota pursuant to Minnesota Statutes Chapter 216F. The Ordinance defines a WECS as an electrical generating facility comprised of one or more wind turbines and accessory facilities, including but not limited to: power lines, transformers, substations and meteorological towers, that operate by converting the kinetic energy of wind into electrical energy. The energy may be used on-site or distributed into the electrical grid. Any proposed wind farm would be regulated by the MN Public Utilities Commission which would include public hearings and take into account any County local ordinance regulations.

Commissioner Ron Staples, District 3, had concerns about the concrete placement to support the turbines could affect underground tiling systems and also the ditch systems. He said the ordinance should include something that deals with those. 

Ben Oleson, a land use consultant who owns Hometown Planning, stated that he is dealing with this in Traverse County where they are working through the paperwork for a wind farm. He said that they are also working on the needed setbacks from homes. The concrete to support the turbines is 12 feet deep with 8 feet going underground. 

County Administrator Rebecca Young made note of looking at decommissioning and drainage impacts for the wind projects.

Solar energy

The next renewable energy source discussed was solar energy. Here again the county has received an inquiry from a company wanting to construct utility scale solar installations. Proposed development could be as large as a 150 MW solar farm to be built on up to 1,500 acres of land. This system would connect to an existing transmission line. It is proposed to be built during 2023 – 2027. 

Staff relayed that currently solar systems of this size are permitted under a conditional use permit. The commissioners had some of the same questions with the solar systems and how construction would affect neighboring properties and underground drainage lines.

BioGas plant

The final inquiry was for a BioGas processing facility plant to be built in an A-1, rural agricultural zone in Stevens County. The BioGas processing facility plant would receive pipeline grade gas that would be trucked in from outlying dairy digesters in neighboring counties.  The facility would offload the product, compress the gas and insert it into a natural gas pipeline. The site would be 25 acres and has a wetland area on each side. 

Some of the concerns with approving this would be the impact of truck traffic, product safety and storage in the trucks at the site. The site would cover 7.65 acres and the entire parcel is 25 acres. The closest farm site is about four tenths one quarter of a mile away. 

The county has an Ag Processing Plant definition in the Zoning Ordinance in place, but further research may be needed to determine if the BioGas facility would fit into this category. Representatives of REV energy and two from Riverview Dairy were present to answer some of the questions about the BioGas facility. 

The facility would at first receive biogas from four of the out of county dairies. This would be trucked in with two truck loads per day from each dairy, for an approximate total of 8 semi trucks.  Expansion could lead up to 3 more dairies contributing to an additional 6 more truckloads. Once the biogas is offloaded, it will be compressed and inserted into the natural gas pipeline that already crosses the property. 

This facility would also hire additional employees and the process would be monitored 24/7, 365 days per year. There will be no proposed long-term biogas stored on the site, it will be immediately offloaded from  trucks. There could be conditions that may be imposed once the applicable board reviews impacts from sound, light and noise from the plant. 

The county commissioners will now be reviewing their ordinances and policies before approving any of the applications. It was noted that some of these may even need an Environmental Assessment Worksheet review before moving forward. 

The county has a comprehensive plan that is to supports renewable energy, grow the tax base and support rural ag and diversification programs. Each of these proposals fits into those categories. It was added that Minnesota has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2040 and these new programs could help achieve that goal along with the county plan.  

The next step will be for the applications to be made from the developers. Staff would then route applications to the county planning commission and then to the commissioners for official action.