In 2017, Stearns County of central Minnesota was spurred by state legislative changes to solar regulations to reconsider its treatment of solar projects. Like many municipalities, the new solar ordinance aimed to capture the benefits of solar while respecting local priorities. The county established a workgroup to create a solar ordinance that attracts community solar farm development and meets the county’s clean energy goals.
The redesigned solar ordinance remains consistent with the county’s natural resource and economic development plans, which encourage the use of renewable energy systems to reduce environmental impacts and long-run risks of continuing to engage the fossil fuel economy. The county’s original solar ordinance, first established in 2010, already had sufficient processes in place to set appropriate permit and application standards. The updated solar ordinance provides further guidance on solar developments to ensure benefits of the wider community, focusing on ground-mounted community solar projects (typically 1 megawatt) instead of rooftop projects.
A first of its kind, the new solar ordinance requires all solar gardens and farms to meet Minnesota’s “beneficial habitat” standard for ground cover, which defines how solar developments can use a combination of seed mixes and ground cover maintenance to become a certified pollinator habitat. Cohabitating solar developments with pollinator habitats benefits water filtration and management and supports pollinators like honeybees. Other changes to the solar ordinance include:
- Solar panel collector surfaces are not considered to be impervious surfaces
- Power and communication lines running between the banks of solar panels are allowed to placed above ground as long as they are placed no higher than the top of the solar modules
- Ground mounted solar systems are to be considered accessory buildings
- Greater dwelling setback requirements indicating that solar farms must be located a minimum of 200 feet from the nearest residential dwelling not located on the property
- Discouraging large-scale removal of mature trees on site
- New requirements for stormwater, erosion and sediment management and control
Beyond the key elements in the Stearns County solar ordinance, common components of local solar ordinances include solar-ready design requirements, limited regulatory barriers, solar incentives, appropriate aesthetic standards, and more. The Great Plains Institute provides an extensive model ordinance that cities and counties can use to guide and capture the benefits of solar development.
For more information on model solar ordinances, check out the resources below:
- Stearns County Ordinance (Section 6.52)
- Utility-Scale Solar and Wind Siting Resources for States and Counties
- Local Government Solar Toolkit
- American Solar Grazing Association
Featured photo credit: National Renewable Energy Lab via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)