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State regulators OK Kenosha County solar and battery storage project, amid consumer group's concern

We Energies says this photo provided by Invenergy, of a battery installation in Illinois, "shows approximately what We Energies' battery storage facilities will look like, at least the size and shape."
We Energies says this photo of a battery installation in Illinois "shows approximately what We Energies' battery storage facilities will look like, at least the size and shape."

Updated March 18, 2022:

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin Thursday unanimously OK'd letting We Energies and two other utility companies buy a Kenosha County solar project, which will also include Wisconsin's first large-scale battery storage system.

Scott Lauber, president and CEO of WEC Energy Group, which includes We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service (WPS), says, "Combining utility scale solar with battery storage will allow us to extend the benefits of renewable energy and provide our customers sunshine after sunset."

But the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin criticized the utilities for "not doing sufficient analysis looking at a range of potential futures for Wisconsin's economy in evaluating whether this project, let alone their entire suite of projects (to replace power generated at an older coal-fired plant in Oak Creek, which is being retired,) would be cost-effective for customers."

Construction of the Paris Solar-Battery Park is scheduled to start later this year in the Town of Paris, with plans for it to go into service in 2023. We Energies and WPS will own 90% of the project. Madison Gas and Electric will own the other 10%.

Original story, June 17, 2021:

More homes and businesses are going with solar panels on their roof. But We Energies wants to take the solar revolution a step further and hopes to open the state's first large-scale battery storage system to maximize use of power from a nearby solar farm planned for rural Kenosha County.

But state and regional authorities have yet to give final OK.

Homeowners and businesses with solar panels typically have small battery banks on their property that store the electricity for use when the sun isn't shining. That same basic concept is planned at the Paris Generating Station, a relatively small natural gas-fired power plant We Energies mainly uses at peak demand times.

We Energies' Paris Generating Station, in Kenosha County.
Chuck Quirmbach
We Energies' Paris Generating Station, in Kenosha County.

During a recent visit by WUWM, company spokesperson Brendan Conway looked down the hill from the plant toward nearby farm fields. He says the plan is for a Chicago-based developer Invenergy to put up enough solar panels to power 60,000 homes on land leased from neighbors.

"As we look now, we obviously see trees, it's beautiful. But in the future, as you look out at some of these fields, you'll be able to see solar panels. So, it's just a different type of farming. Farming the sun," Conway says.

A few large solar farms have already gone up in Wisconsin, and several more are planned, as big utilities go further into renewable energy production. Conway says for now the unique thing about the town of Paris site is that some of the energy would be temporarily held there in lithium-ion batteries inside a small fleet of storage units that look like truck trailers that will be connected to nearby transmission lines.

"We'll fill those batteries up, and then, as the sun goes down, we'll send into the grid as its needed. Sometimes, it might be right around sunset. Sometimes, it might be the middle of the night. It kind of depends on the weather patterns, the time of the year, and what our customers need," he says.

Conway says We Energies and its corporate cousin Wisconsin Public Service would eventually own 90% of the system, with Madison Gas and Electric owing the rest. He says battery storage is also planned for two other solar projects We Energies has announced for southern Wisconsin.

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) has given the Paris Solar-Battery Park conditional approval, with more review coming because the developer wants to roughly double the size of the original proposal, and after completion of a study by Midcontinent Independent System Operator(MISO), the transmission system operator for this part of the nation.

PSC Division Administrator Martin Day says the commission hasn't had a lot of experience with reviewing big energy storage. But he says analyzing safety is one of the biggest priorities.

"Making sure there aren't any problems with overheating, or fires. Those are some of the things that I know have happened," Day tells WUWM.

Richard and Kathy Frederick, on their property just south of the Paris Generating Station. They've agreed to lease 110 acres, to house solar panels.
Chuck Quirmbach
Richard and Kathy Frederick, on their property just south of the Paris Generating Station. They've agreed to lease 110 acres, to house solar panels.

We Energies says it will have strong fire prevention and response plans. The prospect of a blaze doesn't bother the utility's town of Paris neighbor and former volunteer firefighter Richard Frederick.

"I was on the fire department for 15 years, and I don't see that as a serious threat," he says.

Frederick's wife, Kathy, is a retired EMT and says the fire station is just two miles away. Plus, she says there's cooperation with other local fire departments.

"I think we would have very good response time and we would have very good response numbers," Kathy Frederick says.

The Fredericks plan to allow solar panels on 110 acres of their land. They call the deal a good economic and environmental investment.

The PSC also promises a close look at the reliability of the Paris Solar-Battery Park.

UW-Milwaukee electrical engineering professor Adel Nasiri says he doesn't see a problem with reliability. But he says We Energies needs to make sure it incorporates the batteries into its models of when to turn on its various types of power plants. Or else, Nasiri says, "You might get to some point, in rare cases, when you might lose the stability of the grid. And that's where they have to start shutting down loads and generation, to be able to control the system."

Nasiri says he's optimistic about big battery storage, but will watch closely to see what happens in the town of Paris.

If regulators give final OK, We Energies says construction will start next year with the solar and battery system running by 2023.

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