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Interview with Colleen Hollinger: Working With Midwest Solar Developers

Editor’s note:  This month our employee spotlight is an interview with Colleen Hollinger, who handles public relations and business development for our Minnesota natural landscaping company.  One of Colleen’s areas is working with solar developers in planning and installing native landscaping as a part of solar sites.  

Interviewer:  Colleen, could you tell us a little bit about what you do for Prairie Resto relative to solar development?

Colleen:  My work here at PRI has evolved over time, and right now I am working specifically in the solar arena within the Midwest and in Minnesota in particular.  We’ve seen a tremendous explosion of solar development in Minnesota, and we’re going to see more of that in the next few years, especially in 2016, 2017, and 2018.  The Public Utilities Commission has mandated that Xcel Energy achieve 1.5% of all their energy from renewable energy by 2020.  

Because solar is new and is really evolving, we’re all learning as we go.  We have learned that underneath the solar arrays there are acres and acres of land that could be prepared with very expensive gravel or similar ground cover.  The solar developer could also install some variation of turf grass, which requires a lot of maintenance is also devoid of any habitat value.  Or the authoritative body (which is often the county or the township or city), may legislate and require pollinator habitat.  Now you have this array of pollinator-friendly habitat that is aesthetically pleasing, low-maintenance, and helps to infiltrate water on site.  We have this little patchwork quilt across Minnesota of habitat for bees, birds, monarchs and other wildlife. 

So that’s kind of a long answer to what I do, but I really pursue the solar array projects that are happening and try to educate the developers as well as the authoritative body about the many benefits of native pollinator habitat on solar projects.

Interviewer:  Because you’re doing business development, do you get a list, I imagine, of these projects that have been approved? And then are you reaching out and contacting those developers?  Is that how the process works?

Colleen:  I don’t get a list per se.  I attend meetings associated with the solar industry and do a fair amount of research. If I can find out ahead of time that the project is happening, what I try to do is get in front of the approval process.   Then I can work with the solar developers and let them know what is available and how planting pollinator habitat can be beneficial for them.  

Interviewer:  I thought it was mandated in the State of Minnesota that they have to use pollinator friendly native grasses underneath the panels.  Am I wrong?

Colleen:  No, it’s not, except for Stearns County.  Stearns County is the first county that has mandated that.  What is mandated is when it is a public utility, or what they call a utilities level solar array, then those are the ones that are state mandated to pollinator friendly.  All the other private developments are not mandated.  It strictly falls to the conditional use permit and authoritative body about what they will require.  Some counties will suggest pollinator friendly or they will strongly recommend it.  But developers may get a project approved without having any pollinator habitat requirements.

Some solar array developers may elect to plant pollinator habitat along the edges of their areas, and we’re always happy when any is done.  Of course, we’d like to see it across the whole array, and that’s part of my job – to promote that extent of native planting.  Yes, it’s great for the well-being of threatened pollinators, but I work with the solar developments to help them see why it is good for them as well.  




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