FARGO — A company is scaling back plans for what originally was envisioned as a 350-megawatt solar project that would sprawl across 3,000 acres in Richland County and generate enough electricity to power 100,000 homes.
The Flickertail Solar Project has been under development by Savion, a Kansas City-based firm that specializes in renewable energy and energy storage, since 2018.
The project would entail more than $300 million in capital investment and produce 300 jobs during construction. Savion representatives have said they hope to start construction in 2022 and the project could start operating as early as 2024.
To move ahead, the Flickertail Solar Project will require approval from the Colfax Township board, where two of three members say they are not in favor of the solar farm.
Leon Heyen, a member of the Colfax Township board, said the project would take farmland out of production and eliminate wildlife habitat.
“Why do we want to put 3,000 acres out (of production) here?” he said. “Where are all the deer going to go when we fence off 3,000 acres?”
A Savion executive said Monday, June 28, that the company is preparing a proposal with a "smaller footprint" and planned to provide more information at a public meeting in Colfax, N.D., Tuesday evening, June 29.
Savion already has lined up landowners who are willing to lease land for the project. Agreements call for payments of $350 per year per acre, with an allowance for inflation.
Over the estimated 30-year life of the project, Flickertail would generate between $25 million to $30 million in property taxes, according to Savion.
The rural Richland County school district would receive an estimated $100,000 per year.
“As far as tax revenues, it would be substantial for Richland County and throughout the school district,” said Scott Hendrickson, a member of Richland School District 44. “That would help tremendously,” he said. “That’s two teacher salaries, almost.”
Savion is expected to outline a modified project proposal, possibly proposing a project that is smaller, at least initially.
“There probably won’t be any decision” at the meeting, said Jessie Rieger, chairman of the Colfax Township board. “It’ll just be more discussion.”
"The original proposal was just too big, too much land," Rieger said. "A lot of residents in the area don't want it."
Heyen said, "The only ones who are for it are the ones lining their pockets."
Colfax Township would collect an estimated $140,000 per year from the project, more than the township’s current revenues of $80,000.
So far, Savion hasn’t submitted an application for a local permit, Rieger said. The township also would have to pass an ordinance to enable the solar project.
Joe Richardson of Fargo is a landowner who wants to lease land for the Flickertail Solar Project. He’s a supporter of renewable energy sources and had earlier investigated the possibility of building a wind farm on his property.
Many farmers willingly take land out of production to serve as wildlife habitat under the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program, Richardson said.
“We have a lease in hand, contingent on the project going forward,” he said. His family hired a lawyer to review the agreement, as have neighboring landowners. So landowners who support the project already have devoted financial resources and have a right to use their land as they wish, he said.
“They’re taking the rights of my family and other families to use the land,” he said. “Give us the compelling public interest reason to take that away.”
Denying the project, Richardson said, “Would be taking away our property rights.”
Some farmers are worried about noxious weeds growing beneath the solar panels, but that can be addressed, he said.
There’s nothing here that we can see that couldn’t be handled by an ordinance or as a condition of a permit,” he said.
In 2019, state and local officials approved a proposed 200-megawatt solar project in Cass County’s Harmony Township. Despite the approvals, Geronimo Energy of Edina, Minn., hasn’t followed through with a notice of intent to start construction, according to Victor Schock, a public utility analyst for the North Dakota Public Service Commission.
The Harmony Solar Project, which would encompass 1,600 acres, was the first commercial solar project in North Dakota to be permitted, officials said at the time.
That proposal had strong local support, but ran into concerns that it would take farmland out of production, possibly in violation of a rule protecting prime farmland. Public service officials said they would clarify the rule to ensure that solar projects are allowed.
Savion has 15.8 gigawatts of solar and energy storage projects in 27 states, with 131 current projects in various stages of development.