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Recently approved projects pave way for future solar development

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)

Four solar farms recently approved by the Public Service Commission are expected to contribute up to 2% of Wisconsin’s electricity supply. Renewable-energy advocates and landowners alike say these are exactly the sorts of projects that are paving the way for continued growth.

“It could be a precursor of a substantially even (larger) amount of solar energy to come as we look ahead down the road a few years,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director at Renew Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for renewable energy.

Once the four projects are operating, they are expected to produce enough power for 178,000 Wisconsin homes annually.

“From where we are today, the approval and building that much solar is really an order of magnitude increase in the solar capacity for the state,” he said.
Huebner told WisBusiness.com that Wisconsin has an estimated 25 new solar projects and about 4,500 megawatts in the early stages of development.

In 2019, three utility-scale operations were approved by the Public Service Commission: Two Creeks in Manitowoc and Kewaunee counties, Badger Hollow in Iowa County and Point Beach in Manitowoc County.

“We call them ‘utility-scale’ because they are closer to larger electricity generation from more traditional means such as coal or gas,” said Matt Sweeney, communications and legislative director at the PSC.

In January, the commission voted to approve the Badger State Solar project in Jefferson County. Local governments there will collectively receive almost $2.8 million annually.

“We’re anticipating 2020 will be a very big year for requests for approval of utility-scale solar projects,” Sweeney said.

MGE just announced it had received preliminary approval from the PSC to move ahead with plans to own an additional 50 megawatts of the Badger Hollow solar farm.
Huebner attributes the rising interest in solar to steadily improving economics.

“The cost of installing a solar farm has declined about 88 percent in the last 10 years,” he said. “From the power company’s perspective — where they’ve got coal or other types of ways they’re making electricity today — to come up with a solar proposal is more cost-effective to get the next type of power that they need.”

Huebner expects solar to become more common than wind energy, too. “Right now, there is more wind-energy capacity in the state than solar. But as we look ahead, the total amount of power capacity is trending to solar; it’s going to take the lead.”

But just as wind turbines bring controversy to landowners and neighbors with concerns over things like noise or bird deaths and injuries, solar panels give rise to their own set of worries.

“A few issues have surfaced, like neighbors outside of the project’s jurisdiction that like the landscape as it is and don’t want to see that change happen,” Huebner said. Or “the trade-off from farming corn or soybeans to using solar energy instead for that land.”

The four solar projects will be on about 0.05% of Wisconsin’s farmland.

Bob Bishop, a grain farmer on about 2,000 acres of family-operated land, is a part of the Badger Hollow solar project. His farm set aside 650 acres for solar panels. He argues there are no drawbacks to solar.

“I’m already in the energy business,” said Bishop, who sells his family’s corn to a Jefferson County ethanol plant.

“One acre of corn for ethanol is 0.81 car years,” he said. “One acre of solar panels is 74 car years for electric cars.”

He added farmers can choose how much land they want to include in the project.

“The other thing is that Wisconsin has to import all of its coal, so that’s cash leaving the state,” Bishop said. “Here the cash will stay in the state; the power companies are in the state and renting land from landowners in the state.”

Huebner said the transition is being driven by the rising cost-effectiveness of solar power.

“Utilities have a mandate to provide the most cost-effective power,” he said. “They are looking for solar and wind projects that are viable and we’re going to have to continue to find best practices and work through any concerns at the community level to try to make these as beneficial as possible.”

The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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