“They very clearly set a precedent:” Massive solar energy plant to be built in rural community despite some pushback

Source: By Gretchen Gerlach, NBC News • Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2022

DANE CO, Wis. (WMTV) – A massive solar energy plant is headed for the towns of Deerfield and Christiana. Last week the Public Service Commission approved construction of the 465-megawatt Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, the largest in Dane County.

Chicago-based developer Invenergy says the new power plant is a big step forward for Wisconsin, as the state makes moves away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. According to Invenergy, Koshkonong will generate enough power to sustain 60,000 Dane Co. homes, create hundreds of jobs and invest millions into the economy.

But not all residents who live on and around the 6,300 acres of land are in favor. For some, it will be a lifeline. The developer says some residents will lease their land for solar in order to keep their farm in the family. For others, the project is quite literally hitting too close to home.

Too Close To Home

In 2016 the Lyle’s bought three acres of land in the Village of Cambridge. With a growing family and construction businesses, they felt the land would give them the peace of rural living while also allowing them to be close to the city. In 2019, these dreams began slipping away. Carissa Lyle says she received a postcard in 2019 introducing residents to the proposed solar project. It was not long before she received markups of her home surrounded by solar panels.

“At that point we were like ‘what on earth is going on, where did this come from?’” she said.

Thousand-acre Koshkonong Energy Center would be built 100 feet from the Lyle’s home.

The family is now faced with a choice.

“We brought our kids back from the hospital to this home,” she said. “Cambridge is a great little community to be a part of. We don’t want to be pushed out of our home.”

You Had to Be in The Room

Construction of the project was approved by the PSC in early April; a meeting residents and town officials say quickly derailed.

According to Town of Christiana Chairman Mark Cook, the PSC was “scolding” residents for voicing concern.

“People’s feelings are hurt,” Cook said. “They were treated poorly.”

A former PSC member himself, Cook said the behavior of his former colleagues was “uncharacteristic.”

“The Town’s people need to be listened to,” he said. “It’s personal to them. They were verbally attacked and that’s unacceptable to me. The PSC said we wasted their time. How could we waste their time? They are public servants. It was hurtful. People will remember this.”

Resident Tara Vasby echoed this experience in an email. Her home will also be impacted.

“You had to be in the room to believe what happened,” she said. “The PSC Commissioners quite literally slapped our community across the face and called us names.”

According to Vasby, the communities request for Invenergy to modify their project’s footprint was met with disrespect.

“The Commissioners said that the only difference between this project and the other utility scale solar projects that they have already approved was that there were more “NIMBYs” [Not In My Back Yard] in this community,” she said. “They very clearly set a precedent. In short, every inch of farmland in Wisconsin is now a target of utility scale solar and merchant developers, like Invenergy, and we can’t do a damn thing about it.”

In a statement, the PSC responded:

The Commission has a robust public participation component to our proceedings. All of the public comments and testimony on the project is part of the official record on which the Commission must base their decision. The Commissioners read all of the comments and take the entirety of the record into consideration when determining if the project is in the public interest. Just because the Commissioners didn’t reach the decision that some wanted, doesn’t mean their comments were not heard or considered.

Strongest Supporters

The developer, however, says they are hearing these concerns and have been working with residents for two years to address them as the project got underway. According to Dan Litchfield, VP of Renewable Development at Invenergy, more than two dozen neighbors have been offered “Good Neighbor Agreements,” or the ability for landowners to lease their property and host solar arrays, allowing them to monetarily benefit from the project.

For this reason, combined with the land being compatible for solar and accessible to the electrical grid, Litchfield believes the project will be a win for the environment and family farmers.

“They see it as a tool so they can keep their family farm going,” he said. “It’s contrasted by folks who want to pave it and turn it into more housing and that is not reversible.”

The total project will cost $649 million, according to Brendan Conway, Spokesperson for WEC Energy Group. WEC will own 90% of the business and MG&E will own 10%, he said.

“MGE’s application to purchase 30 megawatts of solar and 16.5 megawatts of battery storage from this project is before state regulators,” said Steve Schultz, MG&E Spokesperson. “We believe that if our purchase is approved, this project will provide cost-effective, carbon-free energy for our customers and help us achieve net-zero carbon electricity by 2050.”

Stakeholders believe the community will come around.

“Often times the people who are the most vocal in the beginning of a project… they finish at the end as some of our strongest supporters,” Conway said. “It’s because when we go into a community, and we say we’re going to do something we do it.”

Construction of the project will begin as early as this fall. The plant is slated to be operational by 2024.