By CHRIS HUBBUCH
Wisconsin State Journal
CAMBRIDGE, Wis. (AP) — When Carissa and Nathan Lyle were expecting their first child in 2017, they bought an old farmhouse on about three acres just west of Rockdale.
“We just wanted to be in the country, to have that environment for our kids to grow up in,” Carissa said.
So Carissa was stunned last winter when she saw engineering plans for a proposed 2,400-acre solar farm that would wrap around three sides of their home.
“It’s kind of a punch in the gut,” she said. “It might not look the same way we thought it would.”
But for Dennis Lund, a farmer who lives about 3 miles from the Lyle’s, the project is a lifeline.
Lund, who grew up on a 140-acre farm that supported a family of 10, now farms with three of his brothers, growing corn and soybeans — along with wheat, tobacco and cattle — on about 5,000 acres west of Cambridge.
Today Lund gets little more for corn than his father did in the early 1970s. And new tractors and combines can cost more than $500,000, making it hard for a family to earn a living.
Lund, 51, has agreed to lease about 500 acres of his land for the project, which will generate far more income than his crops without selling off his most valuable asset.
“We don’t have 401(k)s,” Lund said. “Our 401(k) is our land.”
Known as the Koshkonong Solar Center, the project would entail a 300-megawatt solar farm, which could power nearly 80,000 homes, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
It would be the largest renewable-energy project in the state and the first of its kind in Dane County, where seven out of 10 residents worry about climate change but only four in 10 think it will affect them directly, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
The tenth such solar array considered by Wisconsin regulators, the project is at the heart of tensions that are brewing as more and more Wisconsin utilities seek to replace coal-fired power with clean energy.
Supporters of the projects say swift renewable-energy development is essential to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in time to stave off the worst effects of climate change and will provide needed income to local landowners and communities.
Opponents say the projects will forever change the rural landscape around Cambridge and landlock the bedroom community, which has little other land open for new housing. They also worry about falling property values and the hazards of living near a large electric-generating project, which will include a 165-megawatt lithium-ion battery array.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer, is seeking a Public Service Commission permit to build the plant for WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas and Electric, which have proposed to purchase it for $649 million.
The utilities say the plant is needed to move away from coal, which last year generated 39% of Wisconsin’s electricity, and that it will be cheaper in the long run for ratepayers than continuing to run coal-fired plants in Portage and Oak Creek. The project will also generate 10% annual profits for utility shareholders.
The plans have garnered strong opposition from residents of Cambridge and the surrounding countryside, such as Tara Vasby, who doesn’t like the way developers secured leases before publicly announcing the project, which she said will primarily benefit a handful of large landowners.
Vasby grew up on what’s left of her family’s farm about a mile and a half west of Cambridge — just a few minutes from town but far enough away “so we can have peace and quiet.”
According to the proposal before the PSC, there would be solar panels on three sides of the roughly 5-acre plot where she lives with her two children. But Vasby, who describes herself as a “stubborn Norwegian” with no intention of moving, says her concerns are for the community.
“It’s really about saving Cambridge,” Vasby said. “People like Cambridge for a reason, and it’s not so you can drive into a solar field.”
Others say the loss of farmland will be too large a burden for local residents and argue small-scale projects like rooftop solar systems are actually cheaper and do more than simply benefit utility shareholders.
But industry experts say it will take both types of projects to avoid the worst predicted effects of climate change.
“Those who would say we can completely power our system by small-scale and rooftop — maybe in a generation or two,” said Tim Baye, a professor of business development and energy specialist at UW-Madison. “Right now it’s all hands on deck.”
Although other large-scale solar arrays have stirred concerns about the loss of prime farmland, this is the first project in Wisconsin to also compete with urban development. According to the project application, solar panels would cover much of a 417-acre area to the west that the village has designated for residential development in its comprehensive plan.
“We expect our community to grow,” said Wyatt Rose, a village trustee who chairs an energy subcommittee. But with Lake Ripley to the east and the 422-acre CamRock County Park to the south, Cambridge has few opportunities to expand.
The village opposes the project as proposed and has asked Invenergy to avoid a roughly 2,600-acre area to the west of its borders that includes about 30% of the primary arrays in the proposal.
Cities and villages have extraterritorial authority over the subdivision of land and layout of streets within a mile and a half of their boundaries, but those considerations don’t come into play with something like a solar plant.
State law gives the Public Service Commission regulatory authority over electricity plants larger than 100 megawatts, leaving communities with very little say in what gets built and where, said Brian Ohm, a professor of planning and landscape architecture at UW-Madison.
“Cities and villages do have limited extraterritorial authority, but in this case that’s not going to come into play,” Ohm said. “The village’s future plans can be a consideration, something that could be a consideration by the PSC, but again there’s nothing that’s going to lock the PSC into the village’s plans for growth.”
Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said the project could be precedent setting and it may be time to bring state law up to date.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen what is basically an industrial-scale solar farm that proposes to sit right where a community proposes to grow,” Deschane said. “I would hope you won’t see a lot of this in the future.”
The Cambridge school district also is opposed to the project, which could result in lost revenues when land holding solar panels is taken off the tax rolls.
Under the state’s utility revenue sharing formula, the owners of Koshkonong would pay at least $1.2 million a year to the county and town governments, but there’s no provision for school districts. Invenergy has offered to replace any lost tax revenue, which the company estimates would be about $10,000 a year.
The district has also expressed concerns about placing solar panels within a quarter mile of the elementary school and a lithium-ion battery just over a mile away.
O’Connor said Invenergy “is committed to developing a safely engineered, manufactured, and operated” battery system in accordance with electrical and fire codes and has begun engaging local emergency responders about providing special training.
He dismissed comparisons to a massive fire earlier this summer in Morris, Illinois, where nearly 100 tons of lithium-ion batteries burned for days, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.
“This was not a thoughtfully considered and engineered (storage system), but rather a collection of unknown battery types in a warehouse,” O’Connor said.