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Top 10 stories of 2016: No. 9, Solar hits, misses

As the sun beat down on Minnesota during the record-breaking 2016 heat, the future looked bright for solar energy in Red Wing.

A 17 kilowatt system of rooftop solar panels installed at Sargent's Nursery in April was projected to cover 20 to 30 percent of the business's annual energy needs. Owner David Lewis expects to see a return on investment for the nearly $60,000 system within five years.

"Solar used to be primarily a green initiative for environmentalists; now it's an economically smart decision," said Mike Woodley, with Sundance Energy Solutions, the Hastings-based company behind the system.

The same company later installed at 10.9 Kilowatt system above Mandy's Coffee & Cafe, which went live in October.

Despite some progress with solar energy, City Council rejected 25-year lease and solar easement from Novel Energy Solutions for the former CRL building in November.

The rejection came at the recommendation of both City Engineering Director Ron Rosenthal and the St. Paul Port Authority, with whom Red Wing Port partnered to broker real estate. Rosenthal said the project's sunlight requirements would limit development of the surrounding lots.

Monte Hilleman, senior vice president of real estate redevelopment with St. Paul Port, said the property's unique assets might be better suited for a different purpose.

"(St. Paul Port) are big fans of solar — we're actually putting a 40 kilowatt array on a 200,000-square-foot building as we speak," he said. "However, large, flat buildable chunks of property for jobs and tax base are rare. Those of us that live in the world of economic deal making and consider ourselves economic growth nerds look at properties like this and get excited."

According to staff recommendations, the city will continue to work with MN Community Solar to find an alternate location for the proposed solar garden.

The city installed six panels at several sites including the Fire Hall, Solid Waste Campus and Public Works Building from 2013 to 2014. The panels produced a total of 240 megawatt hours over the year and earned back a rebates of about $98,000 from Xcel Energy.

Public Works Director Rick Moskwa said the results from the six panels were a "great start," the arrays only produce about 4 percent of the city's total electricity consumption.

This year, the city obtained a 5,737 megawatt hour solar garden subscription, which will supply 100 percent of the city's electrical needs and save an estimated $6.6 million over 25 years. The Red Wing School District solar garden site will supply roughly 57 percent of the city's total subscription starting in 2017.

"Moving into the future, city staff continues to identify opportunities to lower energy use by utilizing more efficient technology in building renovations and operational improvements," Moskwa said. "For instance in 2017, the city will change out downtown street lighting to use more efficient LED lights and have been retrofitting old streetlights to LED throughout the city."

Goodhue County passes on solar

After treading through hours of work and research, a proposed Goodhue County community solar garden was put on hold. Commissioners eliminated the project entirely after meeting with Public Works Director Greg Isakson.

Isakson proposed the solar garden multiple times, each time bringing more data and analysis. During a recent committee of the whole meeting, the project reached an end.

"Unless there's a dramatic change, it's not going to be brought back," Isakson said.

With a laundry list of questions and too few answers, the County Board decided to put it on hold until a more sunshiny day.

Solar in wetlands

The siting of solar panels sparked debate in 2016 after an application for a zoning amendment was received for a 28-acre solar garden in Wacouta Township.

Landowner Howard Stenerson announced plans to work with Ameresco and Minnesota-based solar developer GreenMark to put in a 5 megawatt system on land between Highway 61 and Wildwood Lane. A significant portion of the project is expected to be on wetlands.

Stenerson sought a change to county zoning regulations that restrict utility scale solar energy systems in shoreland and wetlands. Planning Advisory Commission voted against recommending approval of the change in April, though the request ultimately was approved 4-1 by County Board the following month.

The vote followed a heated public comment period during which neighbors voiced a number of concerns ranging from reduced property values to environmental impacts.

Commissioners cited reluctance to restrict what landowners can do on their property in the decision, falling back instead on established environmental review processes.

A wetland delineation report was submitted and approved for the proposal in 2016, laying the groundwork for identifying the size and type of wetlands on the site, said Beau Kennedy with Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District. A formal application for the project had not been received as of mid-December.

Samantha Bengs, Michael Brun, Maureen McMullen and Kit Murray contributed to this story.