North Dakota officials are throwing some regulatory shade at the proposed Harmony Solar Project in rural Cass County. If approved, the solar array would have the capacity to generate 200 megawatts of electricity and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 50,000 cars off the road each year. Harmony would become the first utility-scale solar project in North Dakota.
That’s assuming the project gets a needed permit from the Public Service Commission. At a recent work session, the commission was divided over whether a rule barring energy projects from being built on prime farmland should apply to the project.
Commissioner Randy Christman thinks the prime farmland exclusion rule, as written, should apply. He noted the size of the project -- the solar panels would sprawl over 1,600 acres -- and argued that the commission shouldn’t approve the project under the current rule.
But the other two commission members believe the rule has enough flexibility. Commissioner Julie Fedorchak noted that the rule allows an exception provided the farmland removed by an energy project will have a “negligible impact on agricultural productions.”
Harmony, in fact, would have a negligible impact: The solar farm’s big footprint will affect a paltry 0.17 percent of Cass County’s prime farmland. The project's developer is offering to allow grazing, haying or beekeeping to take place around the panels, so farming activities could continue.
Christman’s reservations are frankly puzzling. The Harmony Solar Project, which is proposed by a farmer-led company based in Minnesota, Geronimo Energy, is backed by the farmers who own the land that would be occupied by the array of solar panels.
Bernie Sinner, managing agent for a major landowner affected by the project, the Sinner Bresnahan Land Partnership, strongly supports the project, which he calls “farmer-friendly” and said will bring jobs and add to the local tax base. He points out that, if the project ever becomes obsolete, it can be removed and the land returned to crop production.
The $250 million project has a local permit from the Harmony Township board, whose members are farmers, and is endorsed by the county and local schools. The project’s education fund will donate $40,000 per year to local school districts, mainly Mapleton and Central Cass, and generate $450,000 in annual tax revenues.
State agriculture officials didn’t cite concerns about lost prime farmland in their comments on the project, which mainly focused on noxious weed management.
We believe the Public Service Commission can and should approve the project under the exclusion allowed by the prime farmland rule. It’s surprising this issue apparently hasn’t been raised with all of the large wind farms that have won PSC approval, making Christman’s objections all the more puzzling.
If, however, the commission believes it would be better to alter the rule in light of Harmony, they should do so promptly and in a way that doesn’t impede such projects. Solar energy is new to North Dakota, but will become increasingly important in the years ahead.
Commissioner Brian Kroshus correctly pointed out the regulation provides a “great example of a rule that collides with private property rights.” That raises an important point: Do we believe in property rights in North Dakota, or don’t we?