State farm­ers di­vided on so­lar pro­posal

Some are ea­ger to lease land; oth­ers call it ugly

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Sarah Whites-Koditschek

Bob Bishop is a 61-year-old farmer liv­ing in dairy coun­try in south­west­ern Wis­con­sin. On a re­cent day he was help­ing his two sons pull a downed tree off a fence line, step­ping through piles of cow ma­nure and corn stalks as he dragged the branches into the big claw of a skid loader.

Soon, how­ever, the fam­ily will stop rais­ing dairy cows be­cause the in­dus­try is in trou­ble. In 2018, Wis­con­sin lost 638 dairy farms be­cause of fall­ing milk prices. And the Bish­ops, who farm in Iowa County, still carry debt from when hog prices tanked in the 1990s.

Yet a rare op­por­tu­nity has come the Bish­ops’ way. For at least a gen­er­a­tion, the fam­ily could re­ceive dou­ble or more the mar­ket rental rate on about 650 acres to be used for a gi­ant so­lar power project. The Badger Hol­low So­lar Farm would be the largest such project in the Mid­west.

“This was a good an­swer for the lag­ging ag econ­omy. … This pro­vides us an ex­cel­lent-look­ing fu­ture, a very bright fu­ture, we’ll say,” Bishop said.

His son, An­drew, 29, wants to raise a fam­ily here and have some­thing to pass

along. Rent­ing out about one-third of their land, most of it now used to grow corn and soy­beans, for the project will help the farm stay in busi­ness, An­drew Bishop says.

“I’d like my kids to take over run­ning my farm some­day,” he said. “I have to have the fi­nan­cial fu­ture in front of them to make it vi­able.”

In­ven­ergy’s Badger Hol­low So­lar Farm is one of the largest so­lar util­ity projects planned for crop­land any­where in the coun­try. Most large-scale so­lar ar­rays have been built in the desert South­west, where land and sun are plen­ti­ful.

In Wis­con­sin, the 300megawatt project, which the com­pany says could power about 77,000 homes, is en­vi­sioned for 3,500 acres of prime agri­cul­tural land. It is di­vid­ing the area’s farm­ing com­mu­nity, pit­ting neigh­bor against neigh­bor in this county of about 24,000 peo­ple. The Bish­ops are among sev­eral lo­cal farm­ers who plan to lease a checker­board of parcels be­tween Cobb and Mont­fort to In­ven­ergy.

Some res­i­dents who vo­cally op­pose the project gen­er­ally sup­port re­new­able en­ergy; some of them even have their own so­lar pan­els gen­er­at­ing power for their ru­ral homes. But be­cause of the size of the project — nearly 51⁄2 square miles — they fear the area will be­come a “so­lar waste­land.”

Re­plac­ing corn and soy with sun

In­ven­ergy is based in Illi­nois and has 135 wind, so­lar and nat­u­ral gas projects around the United States, Europe, South Amer­ica and Canada, with pro­pos­als to build else­where.

Badger Hol­low is slated for com­ple­tion in 2023, pend­ing ap­proval by the Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion. It plans to use 2,200 acres of the site for up to 1.2 mil­lion so­lar pan­els.

The com­pany was at­tracted to Iowa County be­cause of the avail­abil­ity of flat, cleared lands, nearby trans­mis­sion lines, low en­vi­ron­men­tal risk and com­mu­nity sup­port.

“This is an op­por­tu­nity to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity lo­cally, gen­er­ate jobs lo­cally, tax rev­enue lo­cally, and sup­port lo­cal farm­ers,” said In­ven­ergy’s re­new­able en­ergy man­ager, Dan Litch­field, adding the project could bring $1.1 mil­lion in an­nual tax rev­enue to the county.

And the project would help Wis­con­sin — which is heav­ily re­liant on coal and be­hind most states in so­lar power gen­er­a­tion — shift to cleaner en­ergy.

Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ser­vice Corp. and Madi­son Gas & Elec­tric plan to pur­chase in­ter­ests equiv­a­lent to half the plant’s gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity. Pub­lic util­i­ties can­not eas­ily build such a project them­selves. State law re­quires them to show a need for such de­vel­op­ment, whereas pri­vate com­pa­nies are not ob­li­gated to meet this stan­dard.

Litch­field walks near a sam­ple of the na­tive grasses that would be used as ground cover. The plants would help re­plen­ish soils and pro­vide habi­tat for birds and in­sects such as bees around the so­lar pan­els.

The pan­els will face east in the morn­ing and tilt through­out the day to catch the most sun. They will trans­fer power to ma­chines called in­vert­ers. Un­der­ground power col­lec­tion lines will carry the en­ergy to an over­head line, which will send it to the power grid.

Litch­field points to a prop­erty on the hori­zon where he hopes to place rows of dark, glossy so­lar pan­els, 15 feet tall, in a spot where rows of corn and soy­beans nor­mally stand.

The project will be vis­ually un­ob­tru­sive, and the farm’s in­vert­ers would make only a low hum­ming noise, he said.

“As far as en­ergy gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies go, I think it’s as low-im­pact as it gets,” he said. “We’re not burn­ing any­thing, we’re not stock­pil­ing ash, we don’t cre­ate odors.”

‘Ugly, ugly mark on the land’

Alan Jewell and Richard Jink­ins sit at a round ta­ble drink­ing tea in Jewell’s liv­ing room. Ex­posed stone lines the in­te­rior walls of his roughly 160year-old farm­house.

Both men are farm­ers who trace their her­itage in this area back gen­er­a­tions. Jink­ins said his fam­ily pur­chased farm­land be­fore Wis­con­sin be­came a state in 1848, and his son hopes to be­come a fifth-gen­er­a­tion farmer.

Jewell and Jink­ins both have fam­ily land next to acres leased for the so­lar project. They have joined the for­mal process at the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion to in­ter­vene in the Badger Hol­low case.

They love this coun­try­side for its scenic beauty and feel the so­lar project would change that.

“This is an ugly, ugly mark on the land,” Jewell said. “Why am I hav­ing to have this thrust upon me?”

They say too much high-qual­ity farm­land needed for food pro­duc­tion would be tied up in en­ergy gen­er­a­tion, and they fear more of their neigh­bors will move away be­cause of the project’s un­sight­li­ness.

To Jink­ins, util­i­tyscale so­lar is a threat to Wis­con­sin’s farm­ing legacy.

“If I want to rent land, if my son wants to farm, there’s just so much farm­land near our prop­erty, right? It doesn’t turn over that of­ten. It doesn’t come up for sale,” Jink­ins said.

Jewell said he is for re­new­able en­ergy, but he thinks it should hap­pen on an in­di­vid­ual scale. Peo­ple like him, who are not a part of the project, will live with the down­sides but no ben­e­fit, he said.

Jewell and Jink­ins are also among res­i­dents crit­i­cal of the pro­posed Car­di­nal-Hick­ory Creek power line planned to run near the so­lar project.

Wis­con­sin has no rules spe­cific to lo­ca­tions for so­lar projects. And Jewell said the pro­posed lo­cal re­stric­tions for the project are in­ad­e­quate. An op­er­at­ing con­tract with Iowa County re­quires 50 feet be­tween the project and prop­erty lines of non-par­tic­i­pat­ing own­ers or any pub­lic road. It also re­quires a 100-foot set­back from any dwelling of a non­par­tic­i­pat­ing prop­erty owner.

Jewell’s at­tor­ney, Carol Over­land, re­quested the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion cre­ate rules that would in­clude a re­quired en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view of large so­lar projects. Af­ter opt­ing to con­duct an ini­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment, com­mis­sion staff con­cluded that there would be a low prob­a­bil­ity of harm.

“The pro­posed project is not ex­pected to sig­nif­i­cantly af­fect his­toric re­sources, scenic or recre­ational re­sources, threat­ened or en­dan­gered species, or eco­log­i­cally im­por­tant ar­eas,” the as­sess­ment found.

Rates to go down — or up?

Tom Con­tent, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ci­ti­zens Util­ity Board, noted that MG&E and WPS also plan to buy a 1,300-acre so­lar project at Two Creeks in Man­i­towoc County.

Con­tent said the com­mis­sion should con­duct a “more holis­tic and thor­ough re­view” of whether these projects are needed — and how much ratepay­ers should be re­quired to pay for them. The util­i­ties say ac­qui­si­tion of this so­lar ca­pac­ity would lower rates. An ex­pert for CUB, which in­ter­venes in util­ity cases to pro­tect ratepay­ers, says it is pos­si­ble the cost of elec­tric­ity could go up.

“We’ve had a con­cern that util­ity prof­its in Wis­con­sin have been too high for a long time,” he said, not­ing that Wis­con­sin has the 13th high­est elec­tric rates in the coun­try. “Any time you build some­thing, rates go up.”

Jewell said he also wants more over­sight, some­one to fur­ther weigh the trade­offs of such an un­prece­dented use of agri­cul­tural land for a so­lar util­ity.

“To an ac­coun­tant, it’s dirt,” Jewell said. “To some­body that works with land and feels it’s a part­ner­ship ... it’s not an el­e­ment to buy or sell; it’s an el­e­ment to re­spect.”

Michael Vick­er­man, pol­icy di­rec­tor of the non­profit Re­new Wis­con­sin, which pro­motes re­new­able en­ergy, says so­lar power has been slow to catch on here.

As of Oc­to­ber, re­new­able en­ergy, in­clud­ing hy­dro­elec­tric, pro­vided about 8 per­cent of the state’s util­ity-scale elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Coal-fired plants pro­duced 51 per­cent of Wis­con­sin’s elec­tric­ity, fol­lowed by nat­u­ral gas at 29 per­cent, nuclear power at 11 per­cent, and other sources.

Ac­cord­ing to the So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion, Wis­con­sin ranks 40th na­tion­wide in the gen­er­a­tion of so­lar en­ergy. The state has about 100 megawatts of so­lar power gen­er­a­tion. The pro­posed Badger Hol­low project would pro­vide three times that amount.

The Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion has sched­uled March 6 oral ar­gu­ments on whether the util­i­ties should be al­lowed to pur­chase the ex­tra so­lar ca­pac­ity by in­vest­ing $389.7 mil­lion in Badger Hol­low and Two Creeks.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ra­dio Mike Si­mon­son Me­mo­rial In­ves­tiga­tive Fel­low em­bed­ded in the news­room of the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism. The non­profit Cen­ter (www.Wis­con­sinWatch.org) col­lab­o­rates with Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ra­dio, Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion, other news me­dia and the UWMadi­son School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. All works cre­ated, pub­lished, posted or dis­sem­i­nated by the cen­ter do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views or opin­ions of UW-Madi­son or any of its af­fil­i­ates.

EMILY HAMER/ WIS. CEN­TER FOR IN­VES­TIGA­TIVE JOUR­NAL­ISM

Dan Litch­field, In­ven­ergy’s re­new­able en­ergy man­ager, shows a so­lar panel out­side the com­pany of­fice in Cobb. These pan­els would be­come part of a 3,500-acre so­lar project.

EMILY HAMER/WIS­CON­SIN CEN­TER FOR IN­VES­TIGA­TIVE JOUR­NAL­ISM

Alan Jewell has fam­ily land next to the pro­posed so­lar farm. “This is an ugly, ugly mark on the land,” Jewell says about the pro­posed 1.2 mil­lion so­lar pan­els that would be in­stalled.

COBURN DUKEHART/WIS­CON­SIN CEN­TER FOR IN­VES­TIGA­TIVE JOUR­NAL­ISM

An­drew Bishop, left, and Bob Bishop stand on their farm in Cobb. The Bishop fam­ily plans to lease about 650 acres of agri­cul­tural land for In­ven­ergy’s Badger Hol­low So­lar Farm.

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