Big project splits farmers, clean energy backers in Wis.

Source: By Sarah Whites-Koditschek, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism/Wisconsin Public Radio/Associated Press • Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2019

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 both land and sun are plentiful.

In Wisconsin, the 300-megawatt 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. Several local farmers, including 61-year-old Bob Bishop, plan to lease a checkerboard of parcels between Cobb and Montfort to Invenergy.

“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.

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 5.5 square miles — they fear the area will become a “solar wasteland.”

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 Illinois-based 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 that 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 — to shift to cleaner energy.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas and Electric Co. plan to purchase interests equivalent to half of the plant’s generating capacity.

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

“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.”

Farmers Alan Jewell and Richard Jinkins trace their heritage in this area back generations. Both have family land next to acres leased for the solar project and 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, utility-scale 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 farm 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.