Prairie Restorations Inc. would be site for project planned by Connexus Energy

by Tim Hennagir

Adams Publishing Group of East Central Minnesota

Representatives from Connexus Energy met with the Baldwin Township Board Aug. 19 to provide more information about the member-owned cooperative’s first proposed solar farm project in Sherburne County.

Connexus wants to build a 3 megawatt solar generating station with more than 9,700 panels on property owned by Prairie Restorations Inc.

Electricity produced on the 14 to 16 acre site would be equivalent to the annual energy usage of 630 homes, said Brian Burandt, Connexus Energy’s vice president of power supply and business development.

Burandt was accompanied by Kyle Schleis, a senior power supply and business development consultant with Connexus, and Ian Schonwald, business development manager with EDF Renewables, developer of the proposed site.

“One of the comments made at the last meeting was that we were a little surprised the landowner came and did a presentation,” said Baldwin Township Board of Supervisors Chair Jay Swanson, referring to Prairie Restorations owner Ron Bowen providing initial details about the project earlier this month.

In 2018, Connexus built 10 megawatts of solar: 3 megawatts in Ramsey and another 7 megawatts in Isanti County’s Athens Township, Burandt said.

“We have a vision to build distributed energy resources through our service territory,” Burandt said. “Back in 2016, we surveyed the members of our cooperative, and there was a strong desire for us to add more renewable energy projects, with a caveat that we don’t increase rates doing so.”

At this point, in Baldwin Township, Connexus has concept plans for solar layout, an electrical interconnection and a glare study, Burandt reported.

Bowen produces native grasses used at Connexus solar farm sites in Minnesota, Burandt said. “He approached us last year about building a solar site on his property, and that he had a desire to develop a shade-tolerant prairie grass seed.” All of the power generated at the proposed 3 megawatt solar site would stay within Baldwin Township and the Princeton Industrial Park, Burandt explained.

“The maximum size we could put here is 3 megawatts,” he said. “The panels installed at the site would tilt during the day and track to follow the sun.”

Burandt said Sherburne County wanted Connexus to talk with Baldwin Township about the project before doing any additional work.

Connexus would have 25-year lease option with Prairie Restorations with two 10-year extensions possible.

“This falls within the county’s interim use permit process,” he explained. “We are seeking support to get this project through a parcel split and rezoning. We would like to start next spring and have this system online the fourth quarter of 2020.”

Northeast Sherburne Fire and Rescue Department Fire Chief Scott Case was concerned about training for emergency response if the project was complete.

He had questions about fire suppression around solar panels. “For the most part, we have volunteer firefighters,” Case said. “We need to know how much voltage is going through each panel.” Burandt said there would be an 8-foot tall security fence around the solar facility, and the fence would be topped with barbed wire.

There would be no power poles leading into or out of the site, Burandt explained, adding the tallest structure on the site would be the tops of the solar panels.

“The beauty of the systems we install involves the fact there are no net infrastructure improvements required,” he said. “The main feeder line that goes down County Road 45 can handle up to 7 megawatts. We typically load to 3.5 megawatts. The only improvements are from County Road 45 to the site.”

Supervisor Bryan Lawrence said all Connexus Energy was asking for Monday night was a general recommendation of support from Baldwin Township, adding the town board was in favor of the project.

Swanson concurred, along with other supervisors, who agreed to send a letter of support to Sherburne County.

Burandt replied, “Step No. 1 is getting Baldwin Township’s input on this project.”

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