By NATE JACKSON
The Janesville Gazette
DARIEN, Wis. (AP) — A tattered American flag waves in Roger Millard’s front lawn amid sprawling Walworth County farmland.
For 28 years, Millard, 67, has lived in a quaint, two-story house off North Road, about 3 miles northwest of the village of Darien.
“I wanted to live in the country,” Millard said. “I’m a farm boy.”
Farmland surrounds Millard’s 2-acre property, where commodity crops have been grown for decades.
Now he fears a planned solar farm could surround his home, turning it into an oasis in a “solar desert.”
As markets for commodities soften, more local landowners are considering a different source of income: leasing their fields for solar development.
An owner of the land surrounding Millard’s property said he has signed a lease agreement with Invenergy, a Chicago company eyeing a utility-scale solar development that would be one of the largest in the Midwest, the Janesville Gazette reported.
Invenergy representatives said various landowners in the town of Darien in Walworth County and the town of Bradford in Rock County have signed agreements. The project would cover about 1,750 acres and generate up to 250 megawatts of electricity, enough to power tens of thousands of homes.
In April, the state Public Service Commission approved a similar Invenergy solar development in Iowa County, possibly laying the groundwork for large-scale solar developments throughout Wisconsin.
Millard has raised concerns about the local project. Among other things, he worries about noise from the solar panels and doesn’t want to see valuable, fertile farmland taken out of production.
Invenergy representatives maintain they would work with nonparticipating landowners, even though Wisconsin has few regulations for utility-scale solar developments and does not require minimum heights or setbacks for solar panels.
Bobby Howard, Invenergy project manager for the proposed development, said company engineers will take a closer look at the land after securing enough leases, consider public opinion and piece together a layout, all before they submit an application to state regulators.
“Just because you’re surrounded by a leased area does not mean, by any stretch, you’re going to be surrounded by solar panels,” Howard said.
Howard said Invenergy is in the mid-to-late planning stage for the local project, but he would not say how much land the company has secured.
He said it’s unknown how many acres Invenergy is seeking. Seven acres generally is needed for each megawatt generated in a solar project, meaning about 1,750 acres is needed for a 250-megawatt development.
“For us, the more land we have under control, the better,” Howard said. “… It makes the project easier to construct if we have more land.”
There is no date targeted for finishing the leases, Howard said. The arrays most likely would sit across non-contiguous parcels like a patchwork quilt and be connected using 34.5 kilovolt underground lines.
As with the project Iowa County project, Invenergy might act as the developer, engineer and construction firm on the development in Darien, and a utility or another party would own the assets. Howard said Invenergy hasn’t yet secured a utility customer for the development.
A substation most likely would be built between existing stations — the Rock Energy Cooperative Substation at 4103 S. Odling Road and the West Darien Substation at 2918 Foundry Road — to connect to the grid, Howard said.
Invenergy is doing a study with Midcontinent Independent System Operator — which operates the electrical grid throughout the middle United States — to find a good site for a substation.
Howard said each megawatt of generation would produce about $4,000 in local tax revenue. Any noise from the project’s inverters would not exceed 45 decibels — about the amount of noise made by a refrigerator, Howard said. Inverters change direct current produced by solar panels into alternating current used by the electrical grid.
“If you’re a homeowner at the edge of the project, you would never hear noise levels in addition to ambient noise,” Howard said. “If the wind is blowing, that probably is going to be louder than the solar project.”
Solar panel prices have dropped greatly in recent years, Howard said, making utility-scale solar developments in northern states financially possible.
Douglas Reindl, an engineering professor at UW-Madison, said solar developments are in part being driven by recent legislation in Wisconsin that establishes a goal for all new electric generation to “be based on renewable energy resources, including hydroelectric, wood, wind, solar, refuse, agricultural and biomass energy resources.”
In a 2010 study, Klein and Reindl wrote that the number of small-scale solar installations was rising rapidly in Wisconsin in part because of federal and state subsidies for solar panels and utility subsidies for solar generation.
Despite the shortcomings of Wisconsin’s climate, Invenergy is poised to make long-term investments in Wisconsin solar energy. Along with the Badger Hollow project in Iowa County, the company is working on another 300 megawatt, utility-scale solar development proposal in Kenosha County.
“We think (solar) is going to be the most competitive, cheapest source of generation, and local utilities have expressed a need for low-cost renewable generation,” Howard said. “We think this is a good fit for that.”
Wisconsin statutes define large electric-generating plants as those producing 100 megawatts or more.
Millard bought his 2-acre property off North Road in 1991. The house there was then run down and dirty. He eventually gutted part of it and sliced off the old kitchen.
Now, the house has open living rooms, and windows provide views of sweeping farmland in every direction.
Millard worries he’ll be encircled by solar panels if the project comes to fruition, and he fears his property’s assessed value will sink.
“There are farmers in the state of Wisconsin, they would give their first-born child to have this dirt,” Millard said. “… I’m not against green, but this is not the place to put it … It’s agriculture land.”