FARGO — North Dakota’s first commercial solar energy complex will start construction this as early as this spring in rural Cass County’s Harmony Township and go into operation in 2020.

The $250 million project will sprawl over 1,600 acres and have a capacity of up to 200 megawatts — generating enough electricity to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 240,000 metric tons, or the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road every year.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission approved the project 2-1 on Tuesday, Feb. 26, overcoming concerns that the project could run afoul of a state rule to preserve prime farmland.

“For me it is a private property rights issue,” said Brian Kroshus, one of two PSC members who approved the project.

“Legal staff at the commission with decades of experience thoroughly vetted the rule,” he added. “They concluded we have ample flexibility” to approve the project, which will occupy a footprint equal to 0.17 percent of the prime farmland in Cass County.

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The landowners are seven farmers, and the project has strong local support, Kroshus said. The Harmony solar project, 15 miles west of Fargo, is estimated to generate $24 million in direct economic impacts over 20 years, including $5.7 million in revenues to school districts and $2 million to the county over the period, according to Geronimo Energy of Edina, Minn., a renewable energy developer.

Construction is expected to take about 12 months, with completion possible in spring 2020, said Lindsay Smith, a spokeswoman for the company. About 200 construction and installation jobs will be created, and about $20.2 million will be spent in host communities and the state, according to company figures.

“Geronimo is actively marketing the project to a variety of power purchasers,” Smith said. “Utilities have historically been the primary buyers for projects like Harmony.”

Increasingly, however, commercial and institutional buyers are purchasing electricity generated by renewable energy sources, she said.

“For example, Geronimo recently contracted with Walmart and Cargill for its Crocker Wind Farm in South Dakota,” Smith said.

Geronimo developed the 200-megawatt Courtenay Wind Farm north of Jamestown, which it sold to Xcel Energy in 2015.

North Dakota’s prime farmland rule was adopted in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when farmers expressed concerns that farmland often was targeted for pipelines and electrical transmission lines, Kroshus said.

At the time, woodlands had more protection than farmland, a fairness problem the prime farmland rule aimed to address. “It was never intended to protect landowners from themselves, but rather from outside interests,” Kroshus said.

The PSC will recommend changes to the prime farmland rule to clarify that projects like the Harmony solar project that are supported by the landowners are allowed, he said.

"No one had an issue with it. It was just a lingering question of the prime farmland rule,” Kroshus said, explaining the divided vote to approve the Harmony solar project. Commissioner Julie Fedorchak joined Kroshus in voting to approve the project, while Commissioner Randy Christmann voted against the project because of prime farmland rule concerns.

Now that North Dakota’s first commercial solar energy complex is in the pipeline, others likely will follow, Kroshus said, although he doesn’t know of any specific projects now in the works.

North Dakota currently ranks at the bottom of states in solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.