Community Solar Gardens – Good intentions/bad consequences

Thank you Corcoran Councilor Jon Bottema for digging into this important topic. It is relevant for all cities. Corcoran is lucky to have a council member that cares enough about his community to do his homework.

This letter was sent to the Crow River News
by Jon Bottema, Corcoran City Council member.

I read in this paper a week ago that a solar farm company is asking St. Michael to re-allow community solar gardens into their town, and it would add another to our region. I became more interested in the topic when Corcoran was given an application for a community solar garden a couple years ago.

As a Corcoran City Councilman, I felt compelled to look into it.

I wanted to be thorough, so I   began by reading the community solar proposals presented to other cities in Minnesota. I read thousands of pages of documents, and I watched hundreds of their city council minutes. Every solar company had the same pitch. So many red flags kept coming up! I was losing sleep, staying up till early In the morning trying to figure this out. I am not an authority on this topic; however, as a financial analyst, I could see that some things did not add up.

solar gardensAs part of the application process, a community considering incorporating a solar garden also gets a decommissioning plan: what happens if the solar farm goes bankrupt or ceases to function. The decommissioning plan submitted to us had Corcoran MAKING money if the company went out of business. I wondered how that could even be possible. Many towns have put themselves in financial danger, finding out too late that this it is NOT. Therefore, I would like to present to you some truths I discovered about this and other myths perpetuated by the Met Council, The League of Minnesota Cities, and especially the solar companies themselves before anyone makes a decision about community solar gardens.

Myth #1. The solar panels are recyclable.  Solar panels used in community solar gardens are NOT RECYCLABLE according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency. Though these organizations are actually advocates for solar energy, within their own documents they speak of “recycling in the future” and the “need for recycling plants.” The US, Germany, and China are the biggest users of solar panels, and none of us have figured out how to recycle them. The solar companies say that “most of the materials in solar panels are recyclable.” That is true. The non-recyclable materials make up about one percent of the weight of the panels. However, the non-recyclables are intertwined with the recyclables, and there is no technology to separate the materials. So, by weight, a majority of the panel is made of recyclable materials; however, none of the panel is recyclable because they can’t separate the non-recyclable heavy metals imbedded throughout.  It’s like saying a nuclear warhead is recyclable because it is made mostly of steel, copper and aluminum. We all know that that cannot be true. Ironically, a nuclear warhead is actually more recyclable than a solar panel because you CAN actually separate the nuclear components from the non-nuclear components.

Myth #2. Solar panels are landfill friendly. Even the solar companies’ internal publications. say they are not. I called every landfill within 100 miles of Corcoran, and all of them said flat out that they would not take them. Hennepin County works with many haulers, and they said they did not know what to do with the panels.  I spoke with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which I learned controls everything that can and cannot go into a landfill. Before things can be determined ‘landfill friendly,’ they must pass a ‘leach test;’ the material is ground into a million pieces (similar to how it would be handled in a landfill), wet down, then checked to see if any hazardous material seeps out. The big solar panels have not been leach tested in Minnesota. The panels are, in fact, hazardous waste and would have to be buried in a hazardous waste landfill. There aren’t any in Minnesota, but there is one in Wisconsin and one in North Dakota. They will take them, but it typically costs over a dollar a pound to bury things there. Most community solar gardens contain over a million pounds of that sort of material. In some proposals, solar companies state that their panels have undergone a leach test. This is a little deceiving because what they have undergone is a ‘standing leach test,’ which is significantly different than the leach test described above. The panels are left intact and sprayed with water, and then the water is tested for hazardous materials. The standing leech test actually has no bearing on if the material is landfill friendly. The panels must be subjected to actual landfill conditions, replicated in the leach test, and, again, these panels have not, so the solar companies have no way of knowing If their panels are landfill friendly.

Myth #3. Used Solar panels can be resold. Some solar companies include in their figures a resale value of the solar panels.  In the case of decommissioning a solar farm, the solar company leads the city to believe that it can sell the used solar panels and make money on them. Most decommissioning plans include an engineering company’s analysis of what the solar panels will be worth in about five years.  For a couple of reasons, the panels are not worth much in five years. Technology is constantly advancing, so who would want five-year-old solar panels? That would be like buying a five-year-old iPhone. And- this is a big one- there actually isn’t a market for used solar panels.  They are not bought and sold in any public fashion.  One engineering firm that has been included in many solar companies’ proposals stated that they got the resale value of the used panels from the solar company; another said they hoped a secondary market would develop for the panels.  I asked both if they would stand by their numbers if asked.  Both said no.

Myth #4. The industry is safe. Solar gardens are very new, and the players change all the time. The industry is heavily subsidized and requires these subsidies to stay afloat. There have already been bankruptcies in the leading solar manufacturers and solar companies; in the case of a bankruptcy, it’s important to know that our town is number seven in line for any claims from a bankrupt company. We come after:

  1. Secured Claims;
  2. Administrative Expenses;
  3. Post-petition Unsecured Claims;
  4. Wages;
  5. Employee Benefits; and
  6. Tax Claims.
  7. Bottom line: we would not see a penny from them.

Most presentations give the town the impression of some sort of protection by saying things like, “We are a wholly owned subsidiary of XYZ company; they have a huge balance sheet and have been around for 100 years.” Keep in mind that bankruptcies of a company that is a wholly owned subsidiary do not travel up to the parent company’s balance sheet.  Essentially, the statement means nothing and offers no protection to our towns.

I could go on.

I own many solar devices, so this is not a blanket indictment on the industry or harvesting the sun’s energy.  It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of saving the planet. When I read these solar companies’ proposals, though, it sounded too good to be true. The fact is, it is. The fact is that solar companies are deceiving small towns into picking up a liability that they may not be prepared to handle.  The fact is that solar farming can cost the city a lot of money. The fact is that it’s hard to find the time to dig deep into some of these issues, but let this be a starting point. Do your own research, and encourage others to do the same.  Make an informed decision.

Jon Bottema
Corcoran City Council in Minnesota

MN is 6th worst state in the nation for per capita state and local income taxes

Percapita state and local taxesWe all know Minnesota is a high taxed state. You’ll hear from city officials trying to pass their preliminary tax levy increases that your taxes paid to the city are just a small fraction of what goes to the county and school district. To that I say “So what?” They are ALL going up, ALL the time, EVERY year and those increases never go away. The compounded effect is driving people out of Minnesota to lower taxed states.

Remember this when the city of Minnetrista passes a 5.87% preliminary tax levy increase at the next council meeting on September 3.

“GreenStep Cities” wants control over your property

A huge turnout at last night’s presentation on the Met Council and League of MN Cities’ backed program called “GreenStep Cities” indicates widespread concern over the program that bills itself as a voluntary, harmless program promoting sustainability. The problem is the steps in the program whittle away at a city’s autonomy and their residents’ property rights and open the doors to even more central planning and social engineering by the Met Council.

crowd greensteps mtgThirty cities were represented at the meeting last night with mayors, council members, state representatives, and citizens coming together to learn about how to protect their cities from the lure of recognition and awards their public officials get when they sign on to the program. Awards and recognition eventually turn into promises of grants to entice cities to turn over their autonomy as they progress through the GreenStep steps.

slide from gs meetingMinnetrista has been considering the GreenStep Cities program and actually lists it as a goal in their strategic plan but so far has not signed the resolution the program requires for official enrollment. Hopefully seeing the concern around the region will make them aware that this “voluntary” program is more than what meets the eye.

Thank you CD3 Republicans and Northwest Metro Republican Woman for taking the initiative to bring awareness about this program and the harm that results from it.

 

Taxes or Tree Fund?

tree fundI’m going to go out on a limb here and assume the city’s *preliminary tax levy is not the most riveting topic of conversation at your dinner table. But what if you knew that you and your fellow Minnetrista taxpayers had socked away hundreds of thousands of dollars in an account, money that has been sitting there for years without any liabilities against it and none foreseeable, that could lower your city property taxes? Would that get your attention? It got mine.

Every year we’re given options from staff to increase the city’s budget. We are a growing city and that’s fine but increasing the city’s budget doesn’t necessarily have to translate into raising YOUR taxes. Growth should be providing the necessary dollars to keep city services humming along. This year the preliminary tax levy options from staff are a 5.87% increase or a 4.22% increase. The growth in the city’s market valuation from new construction this past year has only been 2.5%

So why, one may ask, if we’ve only grown by 2.5%, do we need to increase the city’s budget by more than that? At our Work session Monday night all council members except one indicated support for the higher 5.87% increase.

If you ask why they’ll say roads are the reason. Keep in mind we increased our roads budget 36% last year and 40% the year before. If we adopt the higher preliminary tax levy it would increase the road budget another 26% in 2020. These are extraordinary increases when our growth is in the lower single digits.

Anyone that doesn’t go along with the highest increase is accused of “kicking the can down the road” and doesn’t care about Minnetrista’s infrastructure. That’s an interesting statement given the fact our own city engineer’s report, rating Minnetrista’s roads, shows the vast majority of them are in “good-excellent” condition.

I argued we could choose the lower, 4.2% increase, which would still increase our road fund by 10.5% and add another $75K to the road fund by taking $75,000 out of the “Tree Fund,” (referenced above) which has a balance of over $367K in it, to achieve the same results to our Road Fund as the higher levy increase without placing the burden on the taxpayer. The answer was a resounding No.

Council is poised to adopt the 5.87% increase at our September 3 council meeting.

*Preliminary tax levy is set by September 30 and taxpayers are sent notices estimating next year’s taxes based on this. The actual tax levy adopted for 2020 may be lower but cannot exceed the preliminary tax levy.

Wow. It just keeps getting more interesting

Wow.  It just keeps getting more interesting. Just discovered the spouse of Minnetrista’s city engineer at the time, from WSB Engineering, works at the printing company that invoiced the Westonka School District for political campaign literature for Mayor Whalen. Also did some calculations from the newly filed disclosure reports and was shocked to see more than $12,000 was spent with this printer in that election. Were ALL those invoices billed to the school district? Just how much sales tax was evaded by those candidates? Why are these people still in office?!

Okay or Pay-to-play? Largest historical Minnetrista campaign donation ends with donor in top job

Largest historical Minnetrista campaign donation ends with donor in top job – Just days after Mayor Whalen took office and was appointed as the Minnetrista council liaison to a government agency, her campaign donor, who had just made the largest campaign donation in Minnetrista history, was appointed to that agency’s top position which would soon have oversight of a proposed 80 acre development in Minnetrista.

The donation was discovered during the recent “Our Minnetrista” campaign finance violations case but what raised red flags, other than the fact the donation was three times the legal limit, was the donor failed to list his real employer and also completed the transaction using a PayPal account. Writing a check is the norm for large donations and checks are traceable. PayPal accounts can be used by anyone with a login and password to an account.

The land for this proposed development would need to be rezoned and a PUD approved by the council for it to begin. With “Our Minnetrista’s” candidates (Whalen, Mortenson & Thoele) elected to the council that path would be clear. The developer chosen for building the high-end homes had a previous relationship with the donor’s real employer evidenced on the developer’s website.

An interesting side note is Mayor Whalen had been the Minnetrista council liaison to the government agency for many years prior to her leaving the council in 2010 and was immediately reappointed upon taking office in January 2015.

So who is the mystery donor, government agency, developer and donor’s employer at the time of the donation? The donor and donation were listed in a trial exhibit and are public information as part of the recent OAH ruling (OAH#71-0325-35774):

Exhibit 37
MCWDErdahl linkedinHartman website

 

Minnetristra corruption involves school district

The Westonka School District was invoiced for the Mayor’s campaign brochures as well as a hit piece on her opponent. But the cost of the brochures and hit piece wasn’t

redacted Tandem invoice
Invoice obtained from Printing company showing “Our Minnetrista” and “Minnetrista411” campaign mailings invoiced to Westonka School District

disclosed by the Mayor or “Our Minnetrista,” the political committee backing her. A political committee named Minnetrista411 falsely reported the expenditure on its own disclosure report to the Campaign Finance Board. Yes, complex crimes are complicated but the invoice shown here is irrefutable proof that corruption in Minnetrista is not limited to city hall. It extends to the Westonka School District and who knows how much further.

In discussing this with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office I was asked if the Westonka school board was aware of this. My reply was, yes, but many of the school board members are also “Our Minnetrista” members and appear more eager to bury it than expose it. The contact person on the invoice was the Treasurer for the YesWestonka political committee responsible for pushing through the $22M Westonka Schools bond referendum. He is identified in subpoenaed “Our Minnetrista” emails as an active member involved in Our Minnetrista’s fundraising and campaign activities, specifically coordinating their printing.

Vanderlinde hit piece
Artwork obtained from printing company associated with invoice to Westonka School District

The invoice and artwork associated with it was obtained during discovery in the Office of Administrative Hearings’ case involving campaign finance violations against Mayor Whalen, one former and two current Minnetrista city council members (OAH#71-0325-35774).