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Going green: Rock County farmland may soon harvest energy instead of crops

Shown here is the Pegasus Solar Project, which was developed by Geronimo Energy and is now operational in Brooten. (Submitted photo)

MAGNOLIA — A Minneapolis-based renewable energy development company continues to work with landowners in Rock County on what could be the state’s largest solar farm.

Geronimo Energy is proposing a 150- to 200-megawatt solar farm in Magnolia and Vienna townships in far eastern Rock County. The largest solar farm currently in operation in the state is 150 megawatts.

Lindsay Smith, director of marketing and communications for Geronimo, said Friday the company is finalizing land acquisition for the proposed Elk Creek Solar farm, and is now in the beginning stages of surveying the site. Project design work is underway, and Smith anticipates the company will enter the permitting process in 2019.

Construction is estimated to be done in 2021 if the permitting process goes smoothly, with the solar farm operational that same year.

Geronimo is actively marketing the project to potential power purchasers, including utilities, corporations, electric cooperatives, independent power purchasers and other potential customers, Smith said.

With a satellite office in southwest Minnesota, Geronimo Energy is no stranger to Rock County. The company developed the Prairie Rose Wind Farm, which was constructed in portions of six townships in Rock and Pipestone counties and went online in 2012. Geronimo also developed the Odell Wind Farm, located in portions of Cottonwood, Jackson, Martin and Watonwan counties.

“The local community has been very supportive and welcoming, and we look forward to continuing to work with residents and local officials,” Smith said. “In addition to a supportive community, as with all solar developments, Geronimo seeks project sites with large areas of flat contiguous land, competitive solar resource and access to electrical infrastructure.”

The site identified for Elk Creek Solar is adjacent to a substation. The company is working with landowners to either purchase or lease up to 1,600 acres.

Rock County Commissioner Gary Overgaard lives in the heart of the project area and stands to benefit if the solar farm comes to fruition. He said Geronimo would like to build the solar farm within a mile of the substation north of Magnolia.

“I’m basically the only resident in this area that’s going to be affected,” Overgaard said Friday. “It’s all crop land except for usual waterways or waste ground.”

With the potential to cover up to 1,600 acres of land, Overgaard said the solar farm is an interesting option for farmers.

“Considering how things are going with the ag economy right now, it gives the landowner the ability to gain more money off your farm,” he said. Still, he noted that the land there is “probably some of the better ag dirt in the county — high grade, high fertility, high-producing crop ground.”

Because of the size of the solar farm, the permitting process is handled by the state. That doesn’t mean local landowners won’t have a say in whether it’s built. Public comment periods will take place during the permitting processing.

Overgaard said he hasn’t heard much from his neighbors about the proposed solar farm, but there is a segment of Rock County’s population that has become vocal in opposition to renewable energy projects in general.

As a county commissioner, he’s keeping an open mind.

“People complain about someone putting up a hog barn next door or a wind tower being too close and maybe making shadows,” he said. “One thing about a solar farm is it’s not going to smell, it’s not going to make any noise. It probably won’t be a bother.”

What the solar farm will have, according to Smith, is a significant economic impact to Rock County if it’s built.

Based on the smaller, 150-megawatt project size, Geronimo Energy estimates approximately $22 million in landowner payments over the first 20 years of project operation, along with $7 million in tax revenue divided between Rock County and Magnolia and Vienna townships. The solar farm will employ approximately 125 people during construction, with three to five full-time employees once operational.

Smith said the company estimates $600,000 in charitable giving over the course of 20 years, all leading to millions of dollars in increased local spending.

Geronimo Energy has developed more than 2,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects that are either operational or currently under construction. The company also has a multi-gigawatt development pipeline of wind and solar projects in various stages of development throughout the U.S.

Geronimo has more than 975 megawatts of wind and solar projects currently under construction or in operation in Minnesota.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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