Richland County’s Colfax Township has the opportunity to become the site of what renewable energy developers say would be the largest solar farm in North America. But their insular township board could derail the project.
Savion, a renewable energy company based in Kansas City, has proposed the 350-megawatt Flickertail Solar Project in the township surrounding the tiny farming community of Colfax, located 33 miles south of Fargo.
As originally proposed, the project would involve more than $300 million in capital investments and would mean 300 construction jobs. Savion wants to start building in 2022 and the project could start generating electricity — enough to power 100,000 homes — in 2024.
This is a big deal — and a huge opportunity for Colfax Township and Richland County.
It would generate annual tax revenues approaching $1 million per year if it is built to full capacity.
The breakdown includes yearly tax revenues of $320,000 to $325,000 for the state, $350,000 to $360,000 for Richland County, $100,000 to $105,000 for Richland School District 44 and $135,000 to $140,000 for Colfax Township and the Colfax Fire District.
To put a couple of those numbers into perspective: The share for the school district, which is experiencing declining enrollment, would be almost enough to hire two teachers. And the township’s share would be more than it now collects in total revenue.
In other words, Colfax Township could simply stop taxing property owners and still have more than enough to meet its budget.
A solar project of that size would undoubtedly require a small staff to maintain and operate, meaning new jobs for the county.
It also would mean significant revenues for landowners who would lease about 3,000 acres at $350 per acre, with an allowance for the lease to increase with inflation. That would mean a revenue stream of about $1 million per year for the landowners over the expected 30-year life of the project.
And yet, despite all of those benefits, the three-member Colfax Township board is balking at the project. At least two of the members are not in favor of the project.
The naysayers haven’t been able to articulate very specific reasons. They claim the project is unpopular except among the landowners who would benefit.
But Savion claims to have surveyed 1,000 Richland County residents, and almost 60% of more than 575 respondents support solar energy development in the county.
One of the skeptical board members said the 3,000-acre project would deprive deer of important habitat, but we think the deer will be just fine. It would take land out of production, but the Conservation Reserve Program, popular among farmers, does that also.
Savion is willing to modify the project, with a phased approach that would start with 200 megawatts.
But the company shouldn’t have to do that, as long as the project can meet state siting requirements, which we’re confident the project can satisfy.
Here we have a situation involving willing landowners who want to exercise their property rights by accepting lease payments to make their land available for an environmentally friendly energy development project.
The township board has no business interfering with the property owners’ rights on the flimsy pretext that the project isn’t “popular” among township residents. It has demonstrated support among landowners who want to participate.
The township board should be able to articulate solid reasons for denying the proposal. Two people shouldn’t be allowed to derail such an important and beneficial project on a whim — and in doing so, trample the property rights of the landowners.
That isn’t how it works. And if the township board arbitrarily denies a project that meets state siting requirements, and any reasonable local requirements that are imposed, the landowners and Savion should take the township to court to enforce their property rights.