Construction is continuing on the solar farm north of Paynesville, which is expected to be completed by June. Located in the Paynesville Township, the energy resource facility is being developed on a 294-acre property along 185th Street, on both sides of 293rd Avenue, next to the Xcel Energy substation. Approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commissions in March 2014, the Aurora Solar project is a 100-megawatt project for Xcel Energy to meet a state energy mandate requiring utility companies to receive 1.5 percent of electricity from the sun by 2020.

Paynesville is one of the largest of the 25 sites in the Aurora project, with more than 100 acres of solar panels. The Paynesville site is expected to generate 10 megawatts of solar power. The solar farm was originally developed by the Edina-based company Geronimo Energy and is now owned by Enel Green Power North America, Inc. The Aurora Solar project is expected to generate up to $240,000 in local tax revenue, based on Minnesota production tax for large wind-energy electricity.

A total of 25 sites in 16 counties, including Stearns and Kandiyohi, are included in the $250 million project, which is projected to produce 100 million megawatts of power. Each project is estimated to take between four to nine months to complete. The development area for the Aurora project in Paynesville is approximately 108 acres, within a total of 262 acres under Aurora’s site control, according to an environmental assessment conducted for the project.

The project has removed about 98 acres of farm land from agricultural use. An abandoned house was also removed on the property. In Minnesota, solar capacity is expected to increase by about 600 megawatts this year along. Of that 600 megawatts, nearly 100 megawatts come from the Aurora project, including Paynesville. “Minnesota is enjoying dramatic solar growth from residential, commercial, community solar, and utility-scale projects,” said Minnesota commerce commissioner Mike Rothman in a news release. “What used to be called alternative energy isn’t alternative anymore. It’s mainstream.” According to information from Geronimo Energy, solar generation reduces line loss, minimizes fuel costs, and eliminates transmission costs.

By replacing power plants with small distribution centers located close to cities, the electricity has less distance to travel, which reduces loss by almost five percent. Electricity that is generated from the solar farm will be delivered to Xcel Energy’s Paynesville substation, located 480 feet east of the facility. Eventually, the electricity will be distributed and sold. Each three-foot by five-foot 300-watt solar module is mounted on a linear axis tracking system that mirrors the movement of the sun with the panels. The tracking system’s foundations – which looks like metal posts under the solar modules – are driven into the ground and do not require concrete. The area is fenced with a low-growth seed mix.

Typically, solar panels have a life span of 30 years. Once the life span is complete, either the panels will be replaced or dismantled. If dismantled, all posts and equipment will be removed, and the land will be returned to agricultural use. Although solar currently provides less than one percent of the state’s total electricity, costs are dropping fast and the market is expanding rapidly, making it a growing contributor to Minnesota’s renewable energy portfolio, per Rothman.

“Wind now provides nearly 18 percent of Minnesota’s total electricity,” said Rothman. “Solar has the potential to grow ever faster and larger in the years ahead.” Community Solar Garden The Paynesville Community Solar Garden, located near the Aurora project at 18982 293rd Avenue, Paynesville, is one of the seven community solar gardens, totaling 32 megawatts, now generating electricity from the sun for Xcel Energy customers. Geronimo Energy developed the gardens, which are now owned and operated by BHE Renewables.

The new gardens will produce between three to five megawatts of electricity for use by all Xcel Energy customers. “Xcel Energy is on a path to deliver a third of our energy from renewables by 2030, and solar plays a role in achieving this ambitious goal,” said Christopher Clark, president of Xcel Energy.