Will going green leave some taxpayers in the red?

- The landscape is changing on the outskirts of the Twin Cities metro area.

Vast stretches of farmland are planted with semiconductors instead of crops--row upon row of steel, glass and plastic, here to stay for at least the next quarter century.

"We're on a real growth trajectory right now for solar development," said Dan Thiede, a green energy expert from the University of Minnesota.

Who would have thought the sun could be a hot commodity in a state better known for its blistering wind chills?

But private developers are rushing to lock in land leases to install massive solar arrays that turn sunbeams into electricity.

The community solar gardens range in size from six acres to as many as forty, giving consumers an opportunity to go green without the expense or hassle of having to install solar panels on their own property.

"They allow for people to subscribe to a project and actually see a bill credit on their utility bill," said Thiede.

Subscribing to a solar garden can, over time, save customers hundreds--even thousands--of dollars on electricity.

The sweet spot for these community solar gardens is along Xcel Energy's power grid. The utility claims to have the largest solar garden program in the country, producing enough power to supply about 14,000 homes.

Part of what's driving this growth is a state requirement for Xcel to sell electricity made from renewable resources, leading private solar energy developers who are eager to get a piece of the action to stake out land around the metro for projects that can easily connect to Xcel's distribution system. 

PULLING THE PLUG

The city of Corcoran, in northwest Hennepin County, has exactly what developers are looking for: plenty of wide open space and proximity to millions of potential subscribers. 

"Anyone within the county or contiguous county can subscribe to these solar gardens," a developer told the city council during one of its recent meetings.

But after approving two large solar gardens within the last year, Corcoran has decided to pull the plug on any future projects.

Among the major concerns: was the city going to get stuck with surprise expenses that could bust its budget?

Councilmember Jon Bottema, a professional financial analyst, was first to sound the alarm.

"My background is analytical, it didn't make sense," he said.  "It sounded way too good to be true."

A typical solar garden permit runs 25 years.

When it's done the site is supposed to be decommissioned, the materials removed and the land returned to its original condition.

"Nobody's talked about what happens if it doesn't work out," said Bottema.

He began to question one developer's plan for a 40-acre section of Corcoran after the decommissioning cost was estimated to be $425,000 in 25 years. Bottema wanted to know what happens if the solar company goes out of business before then.

"They didn't present oh, these are the things that could go wrong here," said Bottema.

The plan assumed the salvage value of the solar garden's materials would more than cover the decommissioning cost. In other words, no need for taxpayers to worry.

“I think anyone who can guarantee what a recycling market is going to be 30 years from now, I think you should take that with a grain of salt," said Brad Martens, Corcoran’s City Administrator.

The Fox 9 Investigators reviewed permits of 35 solar gardens around the metro for a variety of developers, finding that many of them made similar assumptions: the cost of decommissioning would not put a burden on local taxpayers. 

"It looks like the recycle value recovered from the project, even from non-functioning materials, is higher than the cost to remove them," said Evan Carlson from IPS Solar.

Developers base these projections on engineering studies.

HOW TO PREDICT RECYCLING COSTS

But a major recycling firm told the Fox 9 Investigators projecting the value of any material 25 or 30 years out is impossible.

"The aluminum frame is the easiest thing to harvest off it," said Boerjan who is from Green Lights Recycling. "There's really no way to predict that far down the road in terms of any commodity that you recover."

But there's something else to consider.

According to Boerjan, some solar panels contain metals which may have to be treated as hazardous waste, driving up the cost of disposal significantly.
  
"But we don't know a whole lot about that yet," Thiede said. "So the jury's out a little bit."

Because of these unknowns, Thiede said cities and counties need to shield taxpayers from any surprises--which means requiring developers to put aside money in the form of a bond or line of credit as a rainy day fund.

DECOMMISSIONING RESERVES VARY

But a Fox 9 review of the 35 solar garden projects around the metro found a mixed bag of protections.

Seven had no financial guarantee for decommissioning. Fourteen projects set aside amounts from $25,000 to $50,000 in the form of a security. Others ranged from $125 thousand to more than $300 thousand.

But none were as high as Corcoran, which required a $560,000 bond for decommissioning.

"My concern was if they go bankrupt, if we have to pay for the cleanup, our city's budget is $5 million," he said. "If the estimate is $2 million, that bankrupts our town."

Bottema insists he's a fan of solar energy but wants other cities to be aware there's a potential they could get burned financially. 

Industry watchers fear if local governments demand huge financial guarantees for decommissioning costs, it could turn out the lights on some future projects.

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