PAYNESVILLE, Minn.-On a 100-acre field where crops grew last year near Paynesville, thousands of metal posts are being pounded into the ground, tracker motors assembled and torque tubes put in place in preparation for the installation of solar panels that will start producing power this fall.
The same thing is happening on a 37-acre field on the edge of Atwater.
The Paynesville and Atwater sites are two of 16 solar farms in the Aurora solar project.
With a total capacity of 150 megawatts of direct current power, the Aurora solar project will be the largest-and the first utility-scale distributed solar plant-in the state, according to Enel Green Power North America, which owns the project and has a long-term contract to sell the solar power to Xcel Energy.
All told, the 477,000 solar photovoltaic panels will generate 121 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That's enough to meet the needs of more than 17,000 homes, according to Enel.
At 15.23 megawatts of direct current power, the Paynesville solar farm is the largest of the 16 sites.
Atwater is one of the smaller farms, with a capacity of 5.89 megawatts of direct current power.
The $290 million construction project, which started this spring, followed several years of planning, numerous public hearings and approval in the spring of 2015 by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
While taking advantage of current federal tax incentives, the project is partially funded through a $140 million capital contribution agreement with an investor, according to Enel, which acquired the project from Geronimo Energy and owns a variety of renewable energy projects around the world.
As technology has evolved, the price to develop solar projects has decreased, said Milan Heninger, manager of solar operations for Enel.
In the last five years the cost to manufacture components for solar power plants has "plummeted" and using solar power has become a financially feasible alternative to non-renewable energy sources, Heninger said.
"Renewable energy is real. It works," he said. "It's not going anywhere. It's the future."
While it's still common to picture solar farms in the middle of a desert and "not in the middle of Minnesota," Heninger said technology and economics means solar power is being pushed "further north."
Building solar farms, even very large ones like the Paynesville site, is "a lot simpler than what it seems," Heninger said. "It's a very straight-forward construction process."
In many cases there is very little dirt moved on the sites before posts are driven in the ground. Last fall's crop residue was still visible on the ground at the Paynesville site where late last month crews were assembling and installing 300-pound tracker motors that will move the 50-pound solar panels as they track the sun.
The direct current power generated from the solar panels will travel down lines to a combiner box, be fed into larger cables trenched a few feet below ground and then converted to AC power.
At that point, the power belongs to Xcel Energy, which has substations located close to the solar sites.
The final segment of the project is planting native grasses and more than 20 different flowering plants among the solar panels. The pollinator-friendly vegetation should be especially beneficial for bees and monarch butterflies, Heninger said.
The vegetation will also help manage stormwater and improve topsoil, he said.
With a total of 920 acres of land utilized by the 16 sites, the pollinator habitat is the equivalent to more than 500,000 backyard gardens measuring 6 feet by 12 feet, according to Enel.
Heninger said although the solar panels are made of tempered glass, they will withstand one-inch hail without a problem and can even hold up to three-inch hail.
In the winter, heavy snow can be dislodged by remotely tilting the panels downward.
So far there have been few concerns from the public about placing solar farms in rural, non-residential areas, Heninger said. "It's more of a curiosity at this point," he said.
When the rows and rows of posts started to be installed near their towns, the mayors of Atwater and Paynesville got calls from residents wondering if someone was putting up support posts for grapes.
"People were wondering if it was going to be a vineyard," said Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson.
The cities had little to do with the projects but both mayors endorse it.
"I think it's a great thing," said Atwater Mayor Mark Olson. "We all realize we need to find alternative ways to find energy."
Having construction crews in town all summer has helped fill up local hotels and diners.
"They're good neighbors and part-time tenants to have here," Thompson said.
The Paynesville site is north of town near the state Highway 23 bypass and the Atwater solar farm is lon the east edge of town on U.S. Highway 12.
Olson said having a solar farm in such a visible location at the entrance to town send a positive message about their community.
"It says we're here and we're progressing," Olson said. "We're looking to the future and not stuck in the past."
The company has no plans at this point to host an event prior to throwing the switch on the solar power plants but some type of event may be held once all the sites are operational.