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Big solar project splits farmers and clean energy proponents

Dan Litchfield, renewable-energy manager at Invenergy, shows off a single solar panel outside of the company's office in Cobb, a village in southwest Wisconsin. These panels would become part of a 3,500-acre solar project that has pitted farmers against each other and driven a wedge between supporters of renewable energy. (Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism via AP)

Dan Litchfield, renewable-energy manager at Invenergy, shows off a single solar panel outside of the company’s office in Cobb, a village in southwest Wisconsin. These panels would become part of a 3,500-acre solar project that has pitted farmers against each other and driven a wedge between supporters of renewable energy. (Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism via AP)

By SARAH WHITES-KODITSCHEK
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio

MONTFORT, Wis. (AP) — Bob Bishop is a 61-year-old farmer living in dairy country in southwestern Wisconsin but will stop raising cows because falling dairy prices have put his industry at serious risk.

That’s not to say, though, that his prospects are entirely dim. He recently learned that he could rent 650 acres of his land for double or more the market rate to the developers of the proposed Badger Hollow Solar Farm. If built, that project would be the largest of its kind in the Midwest.

“This was a good answer for the lagging ag economy … This provides us an excellent looking future, a very bright future we’ll say,” Bishop said.

His son Andrew Bishop, 29, wants to raise a family here and have something to pass along to later generations. Renting out about one-third of the family’s land for the Badger Hollow project would help the farm stay in business, Andrew Bishop said.

“I’d like my kids to take over running my farm someday,” he said. “I have to have the financial future in front of them to make it viable.”

The Badger Hollow Solar Farm, which being developed by the Chicago company Invenergy, promises not only to be the largest solar project ever built in the Midwest. It’s also one of the biggest that’s ever been planned for cropland anywhere in the country. Most large solar arrays are built in the desert Southwest, where both land and sun are plentiful.

In Wisconsin, the 300-megawatt project, which the company says could power about 77,000 homes, is envisioned for 3,500 acres of prime agricultural land.

Not everyone loves that prospect. The project, for one, has driven a wedge between local farmers, pitting neighbor against neighbor in this county of about 24,000 people.

Many of the opponents say it isn’t renewable energy that they object to; some even have their own solar panels generating power for their homes. It’s instead the size of the project, which is expected to occupy nearly 5.5 square miles. Concerns are common that the area will become a “solar wasteland.”

Invenergy, which has 135 wind, solar and natural-gas projects throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Canada, plans to use 2,200 acres of the site for up to 1.2 million solar panels. Badger Hollow is scheduled for completion in 2023.

The company was attracted to Iowa County because of its many acres of flat, cleared land, nearby transmission lines, low environmental risk and local support.

“This is an opportunity to generate electricity locally, generate jobs locally, tax revenue locally, and support local farmers,” said Dan Litchfield, Invenergy renewable-energy manager, adding the project could bring in $1.1 million in annual tax revenue.

And the project would help Wisconsin — which relies heavily on coal and is running behind most states in solar-power generation — shift to cleaner sources of power.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas & Electric plan to buy interest stakes equal to half the plant’s generating capacity. Public utilities cannot easily build such projects themselves. Before they can begin work on such a project, utilities are required by state law first to prove there is a need for the development. Private companies are not held to the same standard.

Wisconsin has no siting rules specific to solar projects. Alan Jewell, a farmer living near the site proposed for the Badger Hollow development, said the restrictions that local officials have called for placing on the project are inadequate. Those rules, laid out in an operating contract reached with Iowa County, call for there to be 50 feet between the solar project and the property lines of any non-participating owners or any public road. The contract also requires a 100-foot setback from any dwelling belonging to a non-participating property owner.

Jewell’s attorney, Carol Overland, requested the Public Service Commission draw up solar-siting rules calling for environmental reviews of large solar projects. After choosing to conduct an initial environmental assessment, commission staff concluded the project poses few risks.

“The proposed project is not expected to significantly affect historic resources, scenic or recreational resources, threatened or endangered species, or ecologically important areas,” the assessment found.

Tom Content, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, noted that Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. also plan to buy a 1,300-acre solar project at Two Creeks in Manitowoc County. The Public Service Commission has oral arguments scheduled for March 6 to discuss whether the utilities should be allowed to purchase solar power by investing $389.7 million in both the Two Creeks and Badger Hollow projects.

Content said the commission should conduct a “more holistic and thorough review” of whether these projects are needed — and how much ratepayers should have to pay for them. The utilities say a greater reliance on solar project would help lower rates. But an expert for the Citizens Utility Board, which intervenes in utility cases to protect ratepayers, says it’s possible the cost of electricity could go up.

Michael Vickerman, policy director of the nonprofit Renew Wisconsin, which promotes renewable energy, said solar power has been slow to catch on in Wisconsin.

He hopes 2019 will be a “breakout” year for solar. In the unlikely case that all 15 of the solar projects now proposed for the state are approved, along with several proposed wind projects, renewable energy could, by 2025, end up providing about 20 percent of the power used in the state, Vickerman says.

Renewable energy, including hydroelectric power, now provides only about 8 percent of all utility-scale electricity generation in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal-fired plants produced 51 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity, followed by natural gas (29 percent) and nuclear power (11 percent).

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Wisconsin ranks 40th among all states in its reliance on solar energy. The state now has about 100 megawatts of solar-power generation. The proposed Badger Hollow project would provide three times that amount on its own.

Solar power has finally become a low-cost option for replacing fossil fuels, Vickerman said; that’s why large utilities are now investing in it.

“Solar is homegrown. Solar is clean. Solar is dependable, and solar is economic,” Vickerman said. “When you add all those characteristics together, you have a pretty compelling argument for expanding our use of solar.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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