Renewable energy was one component of the package deal that Nathan Dahlke considered when he began discussions with solar garden contractors about leasing land for the venture.
Dahlke, who works in IT and farms with his dad and brother near Green Isle, Minn., also wondered how such an investment would help his community and whether the solar garden would stand on its own without subsidies. He watched with interest as community solar gardens were installed here and there. He eventually talked with a few solar contractors, asking plenty of questions.
After meeting with Minneapolis-based Nokomis Energy, Dahlke decided to sign a contract with the company and to lease roughly 8 acres of marginal cropland for a 1-megawatt community solar garden. It took about a year for the solar garden to be installed, including native grasses and pollinator habitat. The solar site, which has been operational for a couple of years, is maintained by people hired by Nokomis.
“Working with them [Nokomis} was different. It was more of a partnership from the start,” Dahlke said. “I wanted to help the community, and they listened to me.”
Dahlke said his small town doesn’t have a large tax base, and he was looking at how something could provide local jobs and offer improvements to the school. He found both in the agreement with Nokomis, along with renewable, low-cost energy.
He contacted staff at Green Isle Community School to see if they might be interested in partnering with him and subscribing their energy to his solar garden. They were and signed up. Not only has the school benefited from a reduced electrical bill, but it also got new energy-efficient lighting donated by Nokomis. Dahlke estimates the upgrade was about $5,000.
That’s how a community solar garden works — a three-way partnership of sorts. A landowner works with a solar contractor to have a solar garden installed on their property, which gets connected to the local electrical grid. The utility then provides the contractor — Nokomis Energy, in this case — with energy credits produced by the solar garden. Nokomis then sells the credits to local organizations and residents in the form of a subscription to the solar garden, and uses the subscription payments to pay the landowner and local services to maintain the solar garden. Nokomis started a pilot project last year that relied on area farmers to rotationally graze their sheep on-site.
Over the course of his 25-year lease, Dahlke figured the solar investment will pay him roughly $300,000.
“Compared to the farm right now, this easily doubles what we’re getting off the farm,” he said, adding that the figure is comparable to what he would get from potential land rental payments.
Statewide solar expansion
Over the past decade, solar energy has grown exponentially in Minnesota, according to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI). As of 2020, the state ranked 15th in the nation in solar energy production, and it is home to nearly 9,000 solar installations. Many of the new solar sites are in and near agricultural communities.
AURI hosted a webinar in August that featured leaders in solar ag, and food industries discussing ways to further connect renewable energy and agriculture to produce energy and food in sustainable ways. Most of the discussion focused on ways to maintain productive ground underneath the solar panels. Participants talked about establishing native pollinator habitat and using it for grazing.
Jake Janski, director of services for Minnesota Native Landscapes, Otsego, shared how his company recently started a grazing program using sheep on more than 50 sites across the state. In 2021, it worked with eight solar companies and covered 1,500 acres.
He noted that there is a pollinator planting standard for solar installations in Minnesota.
“The earlier we can be involved in a project, the better,” he added. Seed-mix designs depend on whether the site will be used as pollinator habitat or grazing.
“Sheep grazing provides numerous benefits; it’s not just mowing,” Janski said. “Sheep grazing reduces vegetation height and density, and they pose a lower risk to solar equipment [compared to mowers].”
Some of MNL’s research efforts are supported by a Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant. The three-year study, which evaluates sheep grazing impacts on restored pollinator habitat, vegetation density and diversity, concluded last year. Learn more about the project in the 2021 MDA Greenbook. Watch the AURI webinar online.
Do your research
If farmers and landowners are interested in leasing land for community solar gardens, Dahlke encouraged them to do their own research to understand the process and approach.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and tell [solar developers] what you want,” he said. He reiterated his goal of a solar investment providing local jobs, which it does.
Dahlke looked at owning solar panels but decided that wasn’t for him. For those who are thinking about them, he suggested learning if they offer tax credits.
“They might make sense for some farmers, like providing electricity for running hog barns,” he said.
To learn more about community solar gardens, visit nokomisenergy.com/community-solar.