Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

State farmers divided on solar proposal

Some are eager to lease land; others call it ugly

- 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/ 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.
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.
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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