Chisago County has become a case study in the possibilities and politics of solar energy in Greater Minnesota

Ed Eichten was the first Chisago County resident to erect solar panels.
Ed Eichten was the first Chisago County resident to erect solar panels.

In the summer of 2008, Pat Collins was in his tent on a rainy day in the Boundary Waters, reading a book called Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming. Collins, a science teacher and baseball coach for the Chisago Lakes School District, had been thinking about ways the district could do its part to be more environmentally conscious.

Maybe it was time, he thought, to actually do something. When Collins got home, he got ahold of his middle school principal, John Menard, and told him, “Hey, we should put up 10 Kilowatts of solar! It’ll cost $100,000.”

Menard’s reaction? “He said, ‘You do realize the economy has just collapsed and you want to do what?’ ” Collins recalled with a laugh.

Collins and Menard talked with their colleagues and students and eventually approached the school board, pitching their plan as a community service project that might also save the district some money. The board approved the proposal – for a 44-solar panel array on the middle school – that winter.

Nearly a decade later, nearly 1,000 solar panels now sit on the roofs of the district’s five schools. The power from those panels, along with power the district buys from another 10,000 panels that have been erected in other parts of the county, is expected to save the district $3 million in electricity costs over the next 30 years, according to IPS Solar, the company that developed and installed the panels at the schools.

Collins likes to say that state law should require every public school to undertake a solar project, so convinced he is of the benefits. “Look at what you save and look at what you teach the kids,” he said. “This is really a no-brainer.”

Others seem to agree. In recent years, solar projects have spread fast in rural Minnesota, mostly in the form of “solar gardens” – those blue-paneled arrays, often erected on farmland, that can be seen from highways and county roads all over the state. At the end of 2017, according to the state Commerce Department, 94 solar gardens were up and running across Minnesota, producing 286 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power roughly 285,000 homes.

In Chisago County, farmers and other landowners have put up a dozen solar gardens, with another four in the planning stages. (The county is also home to the massive 100-megawatt North Star Solar – a 440,000-panel, 1,100-acre power utility near North Branch).

Besides inching the state toward its green energy goals, advocates see economic benefits from the panels, including tax revenue for local governments, income for farmers and savings for local subscribers who buy power from solar gardens. The installation and maintenance of solar gardens has created some jobs, too.

Even so, the spread of solar gardens has not been without controversy, with the pace of change and the stark, utilitarian look of the installations – sharp rows of reflecting panels standing where corn or beans once shimmered – the source of some discontent in this bucolic region.

The heart of Ed Eichten’s company, Hidden Acres, is a farm that sits just north of U.S. Highway 8, a winding road that stretches across Chisago County from Interstate 35 in Forest Lake to the Wisconsin border.

A long, snow-covered gravel driveway borders one side of his 20-acre solar garden, which, with its orderly rows of panels, stands out against the rustic charm of the farm: the wire fence that pens in goats, old silos that stand near modern blue ones, a whitewashed building that houses a cheese factory.

On a frigid January morning, Eichten drove me around his farm in a pickup, regretting that he couldn’t show off his 200-head herd of bison. (The animals had been shipped 140 miles west, to a ranch near Sauk Centre, and will eventually be sold to a processing plant in North Dakota). Hidden Acres produces meat and artisan cheese for grocery stores throughout the Twin Cities and for a specialty shop and cafe – popular with tourists in the summer – that sits along Highway 8.

A solar garden near the city of Shafer.
A solar garden near the city of Shafer.

Always looking for ways to do things better, Eichten listened closely a decade ago when local landowners began talking about the possibilities of solar power. So in 2012, he dipped his toe in the solar waters, installing a few rows of solar panels behind his farmhouse; he borrowed $200,000 from his banker – who, he said, was skeptical of the plan – and also received some government and business subsidies. The array produces 40 kilowatts of power, enough for one-third of the electricity needed to power the cheese factory – and to save Eichten $400 to $500 a month. “It takes the bite out of the electric bill, anyway,” he said.

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