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Regulators give utilities OK to purchase 200MW solar farm in Kenosha County

Wisconsin regulators signed off Thursday on utilities’ plans to buy the Paris Solar farm, a 200 megawatt solar energy and battery storage project in Kenosha County.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved a joint application from two WEC Energy Group subsidiaries and Madison Gas and Electric to purchase the solar farm for $433 million. The project would be the first in Wisconsin to combine large solar generation with battery storage, although more projects with large-scale battery storage are in the works.

The commission’s unanimous approval comes after regulators had signed off in December 2020 on the developer Invenergy’s plans for the construction of the solar farm. Once operating, the 200-megawatt project will provide enough power for 60,000 homes. Site work for the project began last fall and construction is expected to be completed in spring 2023. The project could employ about 550 construction workers, according to an economic analysis of the project.

WEC Energy Group, which will own 90% of the solar farm, said it needs a new energy source to meet a plan to phase out 1,600 megawatts of coal generation. Utilities argue the project will save customers $1 billion over the next 20 years. The Paris solar farm is part of $3.5 billion worth of projects WEC Energy Group is planning to use to replace coal-fired power plants with other energy sources.

“We appreciate the Commission and staff’s thorough review and the commission’s approval of this historic project. Combining utility scale solar with battery storage will allow us to extend the benefits of renewable energy and provide our customers ‘sunshine after sunset,’” Scott Lauber, president and CEO of  WEC Energy Group, said in a statement.

The consumer advocate Citizens Utility Board, however, argued that utilities had failed to show the project would benefit ratepayers in the long run, particularly because state regulatory staff couldn’t verify the effectiveness of the relatively new technology of battery storage. The group argued the utilities’ plans to retire fossil-fuel generation didn’t entitle them to build an unproven power-generation source.

“That Applicants are retiring capacity is a fact. That customers require electricity is a fact,” according to the Citizens Utility Board. “It cannot be concluded from these facts, however, that the Paris acquisition will meet future capacity needs in a cost-effective manner that is consistent with the public interest.”

Commissioners, however, said they were required by state law to approve the project if it met certain criteria. State law further prevents regulators from looking at a utility’s power generation plans holistically, instead calling for projects to be looked at one at a time, said Chair Rebecca Valcq.

In handing down a decision in January on a proposed $162 million wind farm in Grant County, Valcq lamented the commission’s lack of power to evaluate the state’s long-range energy needs.

“We only have the authority to do what has been given to us,” she said.

The Paris Solar Energy Center will sit on 1,400 acres, about 1.5 miles west of Interstate 94. But Invenergy has reached agreements with landowners to use more than 2,500 acres. The project’s battery-storage component would deliver as much as 110 megawatts of power for four hours at a time.

Utilities are separately pursuing other projects that would combine solar generation and battery storage. Among them is the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center in Dane County, a project that would provide 300 megawatts of solar power and 165 megawatts of battery storage. Also in the plans is the Darien Solar Energy Center in Rock and Walworth Counties, which will have a 225-megawatt solar array and 75 megawatts of battery storage.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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