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Wisconsin commission, residents mull proposed solar farms

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 are to become part of the 3,500-acre Badger Hollow solar project, which has pitted local farmers against each other and driven a wedge between supporters of renewable energy. (Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism via AP)

By KARI LYDERSEN of Energy News Network

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is preparing to decide the fate of two proposed solar farms that, if built, would more than quadruple the state’s solar capacity and pave the way for more utility-scale solar projects.

The farms are among nearly 30 large solar projects that, buoyed by the falling price of solar panels and strong supply of open farmland, are proposed for Wisconsin; most of them, if approved, would produce between 100 and 400 megawatts.

Renewable-energy advocates are lauding these proposed projects as an environmental victory for a state that has long relied on coal-fired power plants and contended with elected officials, regulators and utilities that were seemingly leery of solar energy.

The two proposed projects now before regulators are the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow solar farm and 150-megawatt Two Creeks solar farm.  The project developers, Invenergy and NextEra Energy Resources, are proposing to sell at least part of the farms to two large utilities — MGE Energy in the Madison area and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. in the Green Bay area.

The public service commission has scheduled a hearing on the proposed transaction for March 6.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin, called the plans “an opportunity to increase homegrown and clean and renewable sources of energy here in Wisconsin.”

“As of 2017, over 50 percent of our power still comes from coal and another 24 percent from natural gas, and we don’t have any coal or natural gas in Wisconsin,” Huebner said. “That’s a 100 percent export of our money. Making our power here is a real economic development opportunity for the state of Wisconsin.”

But the Citizens Utility Board, a group looking out for the interests of utility ratepayers, is calling for caution. It and its allies are urging the commission to mandate a cap on how much utility bills can increase to cover the cost of building the solar farms. They’re also saying environmental protections should be put in place for people who would have to live near the projects should they be approved.

“This case needs to be looked at pretty closely, because the Public Service Commission decision will set the agenda for future decisions,” said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. “It’s kind of a case of first impressions for a solar project this size. … Our bottom line is we think it should be approved but with conditions (including) proper assurance on setbacks and landscaping requirements,” as well as the ratepayer safeguards.

The companies developing these latest proposed solar farms are considered independent power producers. For that reason, when some of the power they produce is not bought by utilities, they can sell any excess into wholesale markets or through power-purchase agreements.

Besides seeking to protect ratepayers, the Citizens Utility Board is questioning the process the developers of the Badger Hollow and Two Creeks projects are seeking to use to obtain regulators’ permission for their plans. If they were utility companies that were seeking permits to build solar farms, they would be under strict requirements to prove there’s a public need for any energy they would generate. But in this case, Invenergy and NextEra are seeking permission merely to build solar farms. It’s only after the projects are completed that the developers would seek to sell them to utility companies.

That two-step process, Content said, is one way to sidestep a more rigorous sort of review in which regulators would ask bigger questions about what sort of energy investment might be most efficient and beneficial for ratepayers.

The proposed 300-megawatt Badger Hollow solar farm developed would have 1.2 million solar panels covering about 2,500 acres of farmland in Iowa County, in central Wisconsin. If approved, it would start running in 2023.

The 150-megawatt Two Creeks solar farm would be on Lake Michigan in Manitowoc County, near a nuclear power plant also run by NextEra.

MGE plans to buy 50 MW of each project, and WPS plans to have 100 MW of each. The cost to the utilities is pegged at about $390 million. The parent company of WPS has said the purchase would save utility customers about $100 million before the solar panels get too old to be useful anymore. Among the supporters of the project is the city of Madison.

As wind power often is, the solar farms are being billed as an alternative “cash crop” for struggling farmers. According to Badger Hollow’s website, the projects would generate $59 million in direct payments for landowners and $34 million in local taxes.

Emily Ennis, a local resident, recently told members of the public service commission about her experiences growing up on a hog farm owned by her grandparents.

“Throughout my lifetime the farm changed with the rise and decline of the agriculture markets. By 2000, with a declining hog market, our small farm was shipping its last few hogs down the road and looking then toward cattle and crops as a means of income,” she said in public comments. “Today with agricultural market prices and demand at an extreme low, farming the sun is a stable, guaranteed means for a farm family to generate income.”

Another local resident complained, though, that the proposed solar farms would take up too much land.

“I feel like this is taking the best, most fertile land in Wisconsin out of production,” said Jean Slapak in a public comment. “I am in favor of solar and wind, but put solar panels in the desert, where they are not using fertile land.”

Huebner said large solar projects should draw less opposition and concern than wind power, since any noise generated by solar panels’ inverters tends to be far less noticeable than the whirring sound produced by wind turbines. What’s more, solar panels have no large parts moving high up in the air, a feature of wind turbines that many see as dangerous.

Solar farms can also be made more attractive if native plants are seeded beneath their panels and shrubs planted around their perimeter.

The Citizens Utility Board has joined landowners concerned to push for siting rules governing exactly where solar projects can be built. As as result, state law now requires wind turbines to be set back at least 1,250 feet from homes.

If built, Badger Hollow would be not far from the route of the proposed Cardinal Hickory Creek transmission line, which developers want to use to bring wind- and coal-fired energy from the west to population centers in the east. Proponents of the line have argued it would help move clean energy to places where it now can’t be had. Opponents say it could harm the environment.

Then there are those like Dick Cates, a farmer and soil scientist who says he’s against the transmission line but in favor of having more solar farms in Wisconsin.

“Use for solar facilities does not preclude a return to other agricultural uses after the lease term,” he wrote in a comment to the public service commission. “It also does not seem likely that an operating solar farm will harm or limit agricultural use of surrounding land as the solar facility burns no fuel, emits no air pollutants, has no significant water use or discharge and creates no noise. As a matter of fact, recent research indicates neighboring operations can benefit from solar farms hosting more native pollinators.”

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