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Madison County puts out regulations for solar panels

January 21, 2019

When Madison County looked to get help developing its solar regulations, it didn’t have far to go.

Last Thursday, the Madison County Joint Planning Commission listened to Ryan Zimmerman, the Pierce County Planning Commission chairman, discuss what he has learned about harnessing the sun’s energy.

Pierce County approved its own solar regulations last year. Zimmerman has leased much of his land for use as a solar farm and has researched the topic extensively for a couple of years.

Zimmerman said he and his brother, who farm in southwest Pierce County, have entered into a contract with NextEra Energy with plans to use their land to develop a 423-megawatt (MW) solar farm.

If the solar farm were built today, it would be the biggest solar farm east of the Rocky Mountains and the sixth largest in the United States, Zimmerman said. By the time it gets built, however, there could be some other solar facilities that are larger, he said.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the number of homes powered by a MW of solar energy depends on average sunshine, electricity consumption, temperature and wind. Nationally, it is 164 homes per MW on average.

That means about 69,723 households would be able to be powered by the Zimmerman solar farm, which will be built on about 2,500 acres of land that are leased to the company.

Heather McWhorter, the Madison and Pierce counties planning and zoning administrator, and Zimmerman have toured the Kearney Community Solar Farm, among other places.

They said they have been impressed with how quiet and tranquil solar farms are, such as those in Kearney and Central City.

“We were like a quarter of a mile away and we still couldn’t find it (in Kearney),” he said.

McWhorter and Zimmerman said solar regulations are a lot simpler compared to other green energies like wind. There are no concerns over visual obstructions and noise.

Typically there is a desire to avoid dust on solar panels because dust can reduce the productivity of solar panels. Ground cover is encouraged to decrease dust.

In addition, such things as crushed rocks can be expensive and difficult to remove when the solar farm is no longer used after 25 to 50 years.

As a result, many of them have grass or wildflowers underneath. Wildflowers can also act as pollinators for butterflies and bees.

The commissioners asked if the panels caused any problems because of glare.

Zimmerman said the panels cannot be seen from the ground. The only time they can create problems is if they are in the direct line of an airport runway, he said.

The panels typically are put on poles that driven about four feet into the ground. There is no concrete used to secure them and the panels are usually about six feet off the ground.

These panels rotate to follow the path of the sun and are wired into each other. The panels are located in rows, with roads between each cluster.

With solar farms, there is usually galvanized fencing around the panels and environmental regulations to be followed, such as not locating them on wetlands.

Zimmerman said a substation will be built next to his solar farm, through which all the power will go. Then the power will be linked to the Hoskins-to-Neligh 345,000-volt transmission line, which goes through the middle of the Zimmerman property.

Following the discussion, the commissioners approved a basic set of solar regulations for Madison County that are similar to those in Pierce County.

The regulations include coverage of small and large solar farms. Oftentimes, someone who just wants to install some panels for his or her own usage.

As would be expected, the rules are more stringent for larger operations than backyard panels.

The regulations address such requirements as setbacks, including those being located in backyards required to be at least five feet away from any lot line and at least 30 feet from any residential line.

They also include definitions of solar terms and address batteries, requiring them to be stored in an enclosed area.

Power lines also are required to be buried, except to link to overhead lines. Fencing also may be required.

A copy of the proposed regulations is expected to be placed on the Madison County web site. They will next be considered by the Madison County board of commissioners.

Many of the specific regulations for farms will be attached to conditional-use permits that will be required when the solar farms are proposed.

McWhorter said the regulations provide a starting point, but can easily be amended as the industry grows and the county sees issues that might need to be addressed. The joint planning commission voted 8-0 to approve them following months of research and discussion.

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