This story is the fifth in a series.
CENTER CITY, Minnesota—It sounded absurd, the idea of spending a large sum of money to install solar panels in a Minnesota farm field that is covered in snow for much of the year.
But Ed Eichten’s family had gotten used to his wild ideas that turned out to work, like raising bison to sell or turning a small cheese-making business into a retail operation.
His solar purchase 10 years ago was similarly the start of something big. Neighbors and clean energy companies began to see opportunities that led to Chisago County, Minnesota, becoming a hub for solar power development, with dozens of projects including the largest one in the state, North Star Solar.
As solar expands across the country, some people try to block development, claiming the panels are ugly, and will harm property values and human health. Chisago County—where solar has been around long enough that the ramifications are a reality rather than speculation—may be the best test case in the Midwest for the extent to which those fears are warranted.
The county provides at least partial answers to questions being asked in places like Williamsport, Ohio, where the push for development is running up against formidable opposition. The two communities have a lot in common, with Republican-leaning electorates, locations within an hour’s drive of a metro area and cultures that are deeply rooted in agriculture.
Some people in Chisago County still ask whether the local benefits of solar are enough to justify the disruption. They lament that development never seems to end, as proposals for new projects keep coming to meet the region’s seemingly limitless need for renewable energy.
But it’s clear that the worst fears of the most adamant critics have not come to pass, with solar projects generating local tax revenues, bolstering farm income, reducing the strain on soil and doing no damage to the value of nearby homes.
Well-Suited for Solar
If you want to talk to the semi-retired Eichten, your best bet is to bundle up and take a careful walk across the frozen surface of South Center Lake, where he spends almost every afternoon in the cozy darkness of his ice-fishing house.
He listens to books on tape and looks down into the jagged-edged rectangle he cut into the ice, hoping that a northern pike will take an interest in his lure. On a recent weekday, he was about halfway through a biography of Daniel Boone.
The structure, with room for two folding chairs, is dark except for the glow coming up from the water. At the bottom of his line is a white plastic decoy built to wiggle like a fish. His aim is for a big fish to see the movement and come by to inspect. If that happens, he is ready to spear the fish with a long-handled metal tool that looks like a miniature version of Neptune’s trident.
But the spear wasn’t getting any use on this December day.
“It ain’t too bad,” he said, about the clarity of the water. “It could be better.”
Eichten was one of 10 children raised on his family’s dairy farm near Center City, on the same land where he still works. After high school in the early 1970s, he went into law enforcement as a sheriff’s deputy and then worked in corporate security for a company near St. Paul. He married and had three children.
He was in his 30s when he returned to the farm. He and several of his siblings expanded the business to focus more on making and selling cheese, and then began raising a herd of bison that numbered around 250.
One of his goals was to diversify the farm’s income. He began to see how renewable energy could be part of this, while also contributing to cleaner air and water by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels. He and his family looked at installing a wind turbine in the 1990s, but didn’t follow through. Later, they began to look at solar.
“It’s for the better environment, for the Earth, for God’s sake,” he said.
In 2012, he paid for the installation of a solar array that took up two acres just north of the cheese-making building. The project paid for itself in less than five years through electricity bill savings.
But its biggest effect may have been the publicity about it. The project, plus a solar installation on the grounds of Chisago Lakes Middle School, led to local newspaper and television coverage about the opportunities of solar power featuring Eichten and Pat Collins, a middle school science teacher who helped organize the school project. Thanks to Eichten’s and Collins’ efforts, many people’s first impressions of solar in the area were positive ones.
Soon, a developer approached Eichten about leasing land for an even larger project. That one, which covers 22 acres, went online in 2016. The lease payments are about $22,000 per year, an important part of the farm’s income.
Chisago County has several attributes that make it well-suited to solar. It is close to the electricity demand of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, which is about an hour’s drive to the south. It also has interstate power lines cutting right through it, so there is an easy conduit for new electricity systems to send their power into the regional market.
And, despite the short, cold days of a Minnesota winter, the county is relatively sunny.
Those are some of the factors that led a developer, Community Energy, to propose the North Star Solar project here. When the 100-megawatt project went online in 2016, it was the largest in the Midwest and one of the largest east of the Mississippi. It covers about 800 acres, and produces enough electricity to meet the annual needs of about 20,000 houses.
Even today, when the rest of the state has had time to catch up, Chisago County has nearly double the installed solar power capacity of any other Minnesota county, according to the Energy Information Administration. It also has the most projects of any Minnesota county, with 56 solar arrays of at least 1 megawatt.
Eichten disagrees with a fundamental argument of solar opponents: that solar panels are ugly. He has now lived with the panels for a decade, and finds the blue glass to be, at worst, a neutral part of the scenery, and, at best, kind of pretty.
He hasn’t seen any negative effects of panels on his water, soil or on wildlife in the area. If anything, having solar on large swaths of his land has improved those things because it means less fertilizer and herbicides. He asks with disbelief how someone could even think that a solar panel could harm soil or water.
“I think they’re just uninformed,” he said.
But Eichten is not the person to talk to if you want to get an idea of the case against solar power in Chisago County.
‘Surrounded by Solar’
Among the people most likely to voice objections about solar are the elected officials who run the county’s township governments. On a frigid Wednesday evening this month, several dozen of these leaders gathered in the historic town hall in Almelund, a community with a population of about 100, about eight miles north of Center City.
The inside of the hall was decked out with Christmas trees and lights. Just inside the front door were plates of cookies, hot coffee and cold cider.
Leaders of each township gave updates about things like municipal projects or upcoming events. Then, when it got to Rushseba Township, located in the northeast corner of the county along the Wisconsin border, the tone changed.
Pete Johnson, a Rushseba Township supervisor, said that a developer was in talks with one of the area’s largest landowners to build a 150-megawatt solar array on some of the most productive farmland in the area.
“I haven’t talked to anybody that wants” the solar project, he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t want it, but nobody’s come to me that wants it.”
He brought two of his constituents to talk to the group about their concerns. The main problem, they said, is that neighbors had almost no information about where the project would be located or how it might affect their properties.
Without meaningful communication from the developer, the neighbors had begun to organize to oppose the project. They had “NO SOLAR” yard signs and were exploring their options for challenging the project through legal and regulatory processes.
For them, the case against the project was clear. It made no sense to them to build on productive farmland in a beautiful part of the county, considering that there were plenty of other places that would be more appropriate for this kind of development.
Within this concern was a larger question: Didn’t Chisago County already have enough solar?
The answer, at least in this room, was a resounding yes.
“We’re literally surrounded by solar panels,” said Lin Strong, a supervisor for Amador Township, which includes Almelund. “It’s really gotten crazy.”
She watched the discussion with the perspective of someone who’s served in local government for decades. She also is executive director of the Chisago County Historical Society.
She doesn’t oppose solar power in principle, she said, but just thinks the county has too much of it. But if she had to choose between solar or new housing development, she would choose solar.
She said the greatest threat to the region’s character wasn’t solar panels but the influx of new residents moving up from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and the pressure on farmers to sell their land for housing developments. Unlike new housing, solar doesn’t bring an increase in daily traffic and complaints from new residents about the lack of high-speed internet and paved roads.
She was in office when solar first appeared in the county in the early 2010s, and sees the development as a direct consequence of the absence of local zoning rules for the technology. The lack of rules was good for solar companies, but it meant that local governments and residents had little control over what was happening. It contributed to a sense of chaos.
But local rules were not an issue for the North Star project anyway, because it was so large that it was covered by state law for power plants, which meant that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission had the ultimate authority.
The project in Rushseba Township also would be covered by state law, so there wasn’t much the people in this room could do about it. They would mostly be bystanders, just like they were in the brief but intense debate over North Star in 2015.
‘It’s Just Sad’
On Oct. 7, 2015, the Public Utilities Commission held a public hearing at the emergency management offices in Chisago County, attended by about 100 people.
Supporters of the project talked about environmental and financial benefits, and about how the developer had been considerate in responding to concerns.
But a large share of the comments were from homeowners who gave emotional testimony about their fears that the development would hurt property values, and would harm their health because of electromagnetic fields from power lines and the potential for chemical runoff from solar panels.
“You know, it’s just sad that we sit here and there’s no protection for us,” said Bob Zangs, according to the hearing transcript.
He said he recently saw two sets of eagles fighting in the sky above his property, and lamented that the solar project would mean trading this view of wildlife for a gigantic power plant.
This shift would affect property values, he said, adding that he had heard from a real-estate agent that his property could lose 30 percent of its value.
He described a process that he found deeply flawed, with inadequate notice given to affected residents and an imbalance between a developer with substantial resources and residents who could do little to defend themselves.
“How can we sit there as though, you know, this is great? You know, this is wonderful? It’s not,” he said.
Zangs, who is now in his mid-60s, still owns the house. He didn’t return messages left on his home phone by Inside Climate News.
The commission approved the project on Feb. 16, 2016, citing a case record that showed North Star was in the public interest and in compliance with state environmental laws. Construction began within months and the project was generating electricity by the following December.
Boosting the Local Economy, Generating Millions in Tax Revenue
Now, six years after North Star began generating electricity, there is no evidence of harm to property values or soil and water, according to the county government.
One of the people who would respond to reports of environmental damage is Kurt Schneider, the county’s environmental services director. Interviewed in his office, with a view of North Center Lake, he said he hasn’t received any complaints.
His main caveat is that it’s possible that there was damage that hasn’t been reported or noticed, but he thinks this is unlikely. He noted that the state conducted an environmental review prior to approving the project, which indicates that North Star is safe.
Even if there is no evidence of damage to the environment, the fact that some people are concerned is still a problem, said Dan Kaiser, a supervisor for Sunrise Township, which includes most of the North Star project.
He said these fears are natural for any big change and he wishes he could point people toward a trusted resource that would answer basic questions.
“When somebody comes up with a crazy notion that (solar is) going to kill the birds or ruin our TV reception or something like that, we don’t know how to answer it,” he said.
The county assessor’s office closely monitored housing sales after the construction of North Start to see if there was any effect on pricing. It found no shift that could be attributed to the project, based on about 750 transactions.
“It seems conclusive (that) valuation hasn’t suffered,” said John Keefe, who was then county assessor, in a 2017 presentation.
The county has continued to monitor sale prices and its view hasn’t changed, said Chase Peloquin, assistant county assessor. This is in line with national studies by academic researchers that show nothing close to the drastic reductions in values cited by solar opponents.
Among the local data points are sales of seven houses that the solar developer bought in 2016 for above-market prices to respond to concerns from those residents about loss of property value. In 2017 and 2018, the developer resold all of the properties for prices that were higher than their assessed value as determined by the county, but lower than the 2016 prices.
Some opponents of solar have said that prices for the seven houses suffered because of the project. For example, Mary Clay, a Kentucky-based appraiser who has worked on behalf of solar opponents, said that the properties sold for an average of 17 percent less than they would have if not for the solar project, based on comparisons to prices of similar properties in the area.
Others, including some in the community, have said they don’t put much stock in the results from those properties because the solar developer had intentionally overpaid in 2016 and later cared more about quickly selling the houses than getting the highest price.
Strong, the Amador Township trustee, has worked as a real estate appraiser and has been surprised to see the properties next to solar projects continue to increase in value. One factor may be that buyers of properties next to solar can be confident that there won’t be any new housing developments built alongside them for at least a couple decades.
“If the buyer … just doesn’t want neighbors, he would be fine with solar,” she said.
Solar also brings local financial and environmental benefits. North Star Solar along with other solar projects in the county provide about $350,000 per year in taxes to local governments through a state tax on energy production, which is one of several ways that solar contributes to the local economy. Over the decades-long lifespan of North Star and other projects, this adds up to millions of dollars that otherwise would need to come from other sources.
The property owners who leased their land are among other main beneficiaries, with income that has helped to stabilize some farms that were marginal and helped some larger farms go from barely profitable to highly profitable.
In terms of environmental benefits, North Star helps shift the region to rely less on fossil fuels. The buyer of the power is Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, which has a goal of reaching net-zero emissions from its electricity generation by 2050.
When asked how solar has changed the county, Schneider said the most noticeable difference is that some well-traveled roads have different scenery than before.
“The biggest thing about solar is visual, the fact that it’s there and (you) can’t hide it,” he said.
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Project developers plant trees and shrubs to reduce the visibility of the panels, but it takes years for this landscaping to grow large enough to serve its intended purpose.
Before then, most people get used to seeing the solar projects, to the point that they cease to even notice them, he said. He is speaking from personal experience as someone who lives a short distance from one project and who passes several of them every day on his commute.
Influencing Local Opinions on Solar
Ed Eichten still goes to his farm just about every day, but he moved out of the farmhouse about 20 years ago and now lives in a townhouse facing Chisago Lake, a body of water adjacent to the one where he goes ice fishing. Early on a Friday morning, he stood at his breakfast counter with his wife, Pam, as they planned for a multi-day Christmas gathering involving many relatives and meals.
Pam, a retired public school teacher, recalled that Ed’s parents were especially cautious about solar and took some time to convince. She supported the idea from the beginning.
“I trust his judgment,” she said.
Even so, she could understand how solar sounded too good to be true to some people.
In hindsight, Ed is struck by how large that first array seemed at the time and how small it seems today compared to the other one on his property and others in the county.
He is pleased to have played a part in making solar real for people in a way that may have helped to make some local residents more likely to support, or at least not oppose, the larger projects that came later.
Considering that rural areas like Chisago County have much of the land needed to build the wind and solar required for the transition to clean energy, the attitudes within these communities have an importance that extends far beyond the township or county limits.
But Eichten doesn’t think in such terms. For him, solar is mostly a matter of practicality, an income source that requires almost none of his attention. That gives him more time to stare down into the water.
A previous version of this story listed an incorrect first name for John Keefe, who was Chisago County assessor.