Despite overwhelming written public comment against the proposed $150 million solar project north of Dillon, the potential 1,306-acre solar farm got through its first hurdle Monday morning when the state Land Board voted unanimously, 5-0, to approve the lease.
Idaho-based Clenera LLC, sought a lease with the Department of Natural Resource and Conservation for 1,306 acres. The project is expected to generate $19 million in taxes over 35 years to Beaverhead County and $1.29 million to the state trust. The initial 15 years would create $480,000 a year in lease payments to the state trust. That money would likely go to Pine Hills Correctional Facility, which houses both adult and juvenile males and has an annual budget of $9.3 million.
If it becomes a reality, the solar project, which would generate 120 Megawatts of power, would become the largest in the state.
Jared McKee, Clenera’s director of business development, said his company is pleased the project got the first green light from the Land Board. The next step in the process is for the state to begin looking at the environmental impacts of the project.
Clenera has additional steps on its end, including reaching a contractual agreement with NorthWestern Energy, exploring any permit requirements and securing a power purchasing agreement. McKee declined to say who that agreement would be with.
There were a few who spoke during public comment in opposition to the project. The opposition to the solar farm appears to be largely from local residents who are worried about the two families who hold grazing leases on the land. There has also been some opposition because 1,306 acres of solar panels along the interstate could present an “eyesore,” to passersby and because of the recreational loss of the land.
If the solar farm goes in, no hunting will be allowed on the 1,306 acres.
The DNRC reported it has received 85 written comments to the project. Of those, three were general inquiries, eight were for the project, seven were against and 67 were form letters opposed to the solar farm. McKee said his company welcomes feedback from the community.
Both Jim Hagenbarth and Romeo Marchesseau, the two current lessees of the land, said Monday they were “disappointed” in the decision.
Marchesseau declined to say any more but Hagenbarth said he is asking that the DNRC give preference to the original lessees if the solar project packs up and heads home at some point. Hagenbarth also said he hopes the state legislature will change the laws so that a lessee can be compensated for losing an unexpired lease.
The grazing leases brought in $2,430 in revenue through grazing leases in fiscal year 2018, according to the DNRC. Hagenbarth previously said he will lose about $4,000 a year if he can no longer lease for cattle grazing on that land.
Hagenbarth’s great-grandfather began ranching in that area about ten miles north of Dillon in the 1870s, before Montana became a state. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who presided over the meeting, called Hagenbarth "one of the best stewards of our lands in the state for conservation."
Bullock said Hagenbarth has "invested the time and energy on the land."
"But we do have a duty to maximize the value of the trusts," Bullock said.
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He called the fact that the Hagenbarths have been on the land since the 1870s "one of the more challenging pieces of this."
Hagenbarth told The Montana Standard Monday that he believes in working landscapes and he is not a “NIMBY,” (Not In My Backyard).
“We understand sometimes land owners have to make sacrifices for the benefit of society,” he said of the fact that if the proposal goes through, he will live next door to the solar farm.
Mike McGinley, Beaverhead County Commissioner, attended the Land Board meeting to report the commission’s formal approval of the lease. He told the Standard that the tax base from such a $150 million project would be “unreal.”
He said it will cause residents’ taxes in Beaverhead County to go down.
Republican Elsie Arntzen, superintendent of public instruction, asked during the meeting if Clenera would be subsidized.
McKee said there is a federal 30 percent tax credit the company would take advantage of, but it is not a subsidy.
Republican Cory Stapleton, secretary of state, asked “why this big and why here?”
McKee said the larger the size of the solar project, the “lower the price you deliver to a utility.”
He said Clenera had also been looking for “transmission infrastructure with limited transmission upgrades.”
Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, said that the board has to pursue projects that will generate the “maximum long-term income to the trust.”
The state trust land, which the DNRC and the state Land Board oversees, provides money to the schools and other endowed institutions.
“It’s a constraining responsibility,” Fox said. “But this will be thoroughly vetted.”