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Closed landfills could go solar if pilot project flies

Could the sun turn brownfields green? Could ground that once hosted landfills and resists development because of residual toxins be put to good use with solar energy arrays?

Thanks to legislation passed in 2019, the state commissioned a feasibility study on the subject. It concluded that it was very possible, but there are some barriers. Among the biggest: Of the 110 parcels of land in the Pollution Control Agency’s Closed Landfill Program, half have use restrictions from general obligation bonds used to fund their cleanup.

In other words, the solar arrays can’t go up until the bonds are retired. And some of them have 30-plus years left on their repayment schedule.

Could the process be sped up?

Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield) sponsors HF1879 to create a pilot project to see if money from the state’s Renewable Development Account could be used to retire general obligation bonds on a closed landfill. The test case would be the Anoka-Ramsey landfill in Ramsey, and $3 million would be appropriated for the purpose.

With the removal of bonding restrictions, the site could be converted into a planned five-megawatt solar electric generation facility. According to the bill, the project must be owned and operated by an electric cooperative association that has more than 130,000 Minnesota customers.

The appropriation would be strictly to deal with the bonds, not to finance the project, procure land rights or manage the solar array.

The bill, as amended, was laid over by the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday for possible inclusion in an omnibus energy bill. Its companion, SF1678, sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake), awaits action in the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

To briefly explain the Renewable Development Account: It’s a pot of state money that Xcel Energy pays into annually, set up in 1994 when Xcel was given permission to store nuclear waste at its Prairie Island plant in southeastern Minnesota. Storage at its Monticello plant was added in 2007. For each waste cask used, Xcel gives the state between $350,000 and $500,000 annually. The fund is earmarked for grants for the development of renewable energy sources in Minnesota.

“This pilot would make it possible for us to see if it’s possible for [Minnesota Management and Budget] to do this, and if this kind of model can work in the future,” said David Shaffer, executive director for the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association. “It’s outside Xcel service territory, but it would benefit Xcel customers in reducing their rates. It makes too much sense for Minnesota not to do.”

The company that wishes to build the solar facility is Connexus, an electric cooperative that serves the northern part of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. And that doesn’t sit well with Rick Evans, director of regional government affairs for Xcel Energy.

“Having Xcel customers pay for this would be like requiring you to pay off the debt on someone else’s mortgage,” he said.

Lippert responded that the pilot project could benefit Xcel Energy.

“There are 17 closed landfill sites within Xcel territory,” Lippert said. “That seems a good argument for use of the Renewable Development Account.”

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