Residents criticize environmental impact of solar project that cut hundreds of trees

Buffalo Township, Minn.–Residents of Buffalo Township are voicing concerns over the environmental impact of a solar power project they say has leveled hundreds of mature hardwoods and taken fertile cropland out of production 35 miles west of the Twin Cities.

While it may be too late for Buffalo Township, the backlash has led to a moratorium on additional solar developments in Wright County.

“A lot of people were not aware of what was happening yet. Now, it gets thrown in their back yard and all of a sudden it’s like, we’re not so sure about this,” said Don Schmidt, Buffalo Township Supervisor and Chair.

Township officials have gotten an earful of complaints from farmers and neighbors since developer Enel Green Power-North America began clearing oaks, ash and maple trees on the 75 acre Lake Pulaski solar power facility.Old Trees Piled Up

“I would guess there’s probably close to 1,000 trees cut down and this really bothers us. They clear cut it,” said Schmidt, who’s farmed in the area for 52 years.

But Minnesotans have little-to-no say on solar projects in their own backyard. State law grants Minnesota Public Utility Commission regulators sole authority over big solar developments, overriding local zoning laws.

“The Supervisors had no control over this Solar Field as the original developers bypassed the township and the county and obtained a permit from the state,” Buffalo Township officials say on Facebook.

“The trees are already destroyed, the township officers are still angry, they have no say because the state Public Utilities Commission decided it for them,” said Rep. Marion O’Neill, (R-Maple Lake).

Facebook offers one of the few ways to fight back. Officials have posted 33 photos on the township’s Facebook page, featuring stumps, downed trees and limbs scattered beside fields now slated for thousands of solar panels.

“There was one big beautiful oak that must have been 200 years old, it was just massive. But this company just came in and they fully admitted they leveled trees that were on 11 acres out of 80 acres so they could get more solar panels on the property,” said Rep. Marion O’Neill, (R-Maple Lake).

A change in companies developing the project on the ground has also caused blowback. Just when locals were getting to know Minnesota-based Geronimo Energy, multinational conglomerate Enel Green Power took over.

Then a meeting of Wright County township officials became so heated that Rep. O’Neill called an emergency weekend meeting with Enel representatives and local residents in the field beside the toppled trees. The renewable energy developer agreed to address residents’ concerns.Chipping Guy

“All EGP-NA projects are developed with a comprehensive approach to sustainability in mind, and as a company, we hold ourselves to the highest environmental standards and diligently comply with permitting regulations,” EGP Communications Specialist Krista Barnaby said in a statement.

While township officials do not oppose solar energy per se, they say the PUC should target gravel pits and less desirable acreage for development.  Few put much stock in promises that agricultural land will be good as new when the solar panels come down in 25 years.

“These companies come in here and paint such a nice picture. And then you start seeing what they do to the land,” said Tom Kleist, Buffalo Township Clerk and Treasurer. “They’re going to be digging hundreds of holes to put the poles in, which is going to disrupt the soil. They don’t tell you they’re putting roads in all these fields, so they can get their equipment in and out.”

Seeing the environmental consequences up close has caused some locals to question the trade-off.

“Since I was a little boy, I was taught that trees give the oxygen back, they hold the soil, help filtrate the water, provide homes for wildlife, slow down the wind and snow. Yet they cut them all down and put up solar panels,” Buffalo Township Supervisor Schmidt said.20160408_140832_resized

Meantime, Rep. O’Neill has introduced legislation prohibiting the removal of more than three acres of trees on future solar projects.

“EGP-NA has owned and operated renewable energy projects in Minnesota for more than 15 years and is committed to the long-term sustainability of the local communities,” said spokesman Krista Barnaby.