Wisconsin regulators approved Alliant Energy’s plan on Thursday to spend about $620 million to develop six new solar farms and close two coal plants in the second phase of a plan to spend $1.5 billion on renewable energy.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission unanimously granted Alliant’s plan to build 414 megawatts of solar generation at solar farms in Dodge, Grant, Green, Rock and Waushara counties. The series of projects come after regulators a year ago approved the utility’s proposal to spend more than $900 million on 675 megawatts of solar in six projects throughout the state in the first phase of a plan to develop 1,000 megawatts of new solar generation by 2023.
Alliant would pair the construction of new solar farms with the closing of its Columbia and Edgewater coal plants in the next two years. The utility estimates replacing its coal plants with solar generation will save energy consumers between $1.52 billion and $6.15 billion over the next 30 years.
The PSC commissioners praised the utility’s forecasting and the initiative’s ability to save money in the long run by moving away from coal. Commissioner Ellen Nowak noted, though, that ratepayers will bear the costs of the recent spree of spending on solar farm developments.
The PSC has signed off on 1,850 megawatts of new utility-owned solar projects in the past three years.
“There’s been a huge building phase going on and there’s going to be an impact,” she said.
The largest of the six solar farms Alliant intends to develop as part of the second phase of its clean-energy plan is the 100 megawatt Springfield Solar Farm in Dodge County, which earned support from the PSC in September. Each of the five other solar farms would produce less than 100 megawatts, meaning they’ll need only local approval to move forward. That includes the 99-megwatt Wautoma Solar Project, on which construction is to get underway this year.
Several labor unions filed comments with the PSC expressing support for the utility’s plan, noting that new solar construction would come with an agreement to hire mostly Wisconsin workers.
Construction Business Group, for instance, said each of Alliant’s six new solar farms would create between 100 and 200 construction jobs. Unions including the Northcentral States Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139 also signaled their support for Alliant’s plans. Unions cited a report produced last fall that found solar projects built mostly by Wisconsin workers generated twice as much economic benefit for the state.
“The commitment to using primarily local labor ensures that Wisconsin ratepayers will receive the maximum economic benefit from the infrastructure development,” Construction Business Group wrote in its comments to the commission.
The green energy advocate RENEW Wisconsin also praised the PSC’s decision to approve Alliant’s clean-energy plan.
“Today’s approval by the PSC affirms the uniquely valuable set of benefits that large-scale solar will bring to Wisconsin’s power industry,” RENEW Executive Director Heather Allen said in a statement.
The PSC, meanwhile, voted 2-1 to require Alliant to report how many Wisconsin workers contractors actually hire to build its six new solar projects. PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq said asking the utility to do so would help give commissioners a clear sense of how construction of solar farms affects the state’s economy.
“I don’t think that’s overly burdensome and I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Valcq said. “That’s one tool that we have to make sure that the economic benefits are captured.”
Nowak, however, opposed the reporting requirement and said developers are faced with pressure from a tight labor market and supply chain disruptions and shouldn’t feel pressure to hire a certain number of Wisconsin residents.
“We’re starting to put way too many things into the public interest bucket,” she said. “I’m not sure what the purpose of this is.” Follow @natebeck9