Construction is underway on a large solar energy farm 90 minutes north of Milwaukee, and state regulators are considering approval of a second farm nearby. These projects, along with one approved this year for southwest Wisconsin, would be the first so-called utility solar developments in the state. That's because they are large and electric utilities like WE Energies are closely involved.
But as with controversies over more traditional power plants, some neighbors aren't sold on big solar.
For the most part, solar energy in Wisconsin has meant homeowners and businesses adding solar panels to their roof. But the cost of the panels has come down to the point where electric utilities are now putting up hundreds of panels, and planning to sell the electricity to other utilities.
In the town of Two Creeks, about 7 miles north of Two Rivers, pile drivers are driving steel posts vertically into the ground. This is part of what's called the Two Creeks Project. If things go as planned, by next year, the posts will hold solar panels that generate 150 megawatts of electricity for thousands of customers of Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) and the WE Energies subsidiary Wisconsin Public Service. MGE and We Energies would own the solar farm.
But across the street from the construction, homeowner Robin McDaniel says the last two months since a groundbreaking attended by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers have been a noisy challenge. McDaniel says he misses the farm field that used to be on the site.
"It was the classic description from the National Anthem. It was 'amber waves of grain.' You could look out here, my wife and I could walk our golden retriever and say, 'My, look at that. The dog matches the golden waves or grain,' " McDaniel told WUWM.
At this point, McDaniel's not trying to stop the Two Creeks Project. But he would like some changes, like dropping plans for a metal fence around the solar farm. And over the long run, McDaniel questions whether this location near Lake Michigan, will get enough sun to produce all the promised juice.
"This happens to be a unique micro-climate. The lake is approximately 2 kilometers directly to the East of us. And many times, there's a fog bank right over this project," McDaniel said.
A Florida-based utility, NextEra Energy is building the Two Creeks Project. It wants to put up a 100 megawatt farm, called Point Beach Solar, immediately to the north and west. Project Director Toni Darwish says NextEra already owns and runs the nearby Point Beach Nuclear Plant — and adding close-by solar would work.
"From a solar generation perspective, and a cost perspective, the economies of scale were there because of our ongoing operations with the Point Beach Nuclear Plant. We already own the majority of land required for the project. So, it made a lot of sense to locate a project in this part of the world," Darwish said.
Darwish says financial agreements have been worked out with farmers and other landowners that would host the remaining solar panels.
No one testified flat-out against the proposed second farm, Point Beach Solar, at Public Service Commission hearings in Two Rivers last week. But Robin McDaniel showed up to push for the banks of solar panels, called arrays, to be located high enough off the ground to grow crops underneath. He calls it co-farming, harvesting the sun's energy and food.
"If we could just elevate the structure, 1 meter let's say from its current plan, I believe we can do co-farming, with I believe multiple crops," McDaniel told the hearing.
NextEra calls McDaniel's idea "interesting." The other person who testified in Two Rivers raised the issue of just getting more power from the nuclear plant. Two Creeks resident Adam Jankowski says he doesn't mind that the federal government would likely have to approve.
"So what? It's the best bang for your buck, ya know? And I understand it's expensive, but to get at those touchy-feely feelgoods of using clean energy that's the best way to do it," Jankowski said.
Critics say nuclear energy isn't all that clean and produces radioactive waste. NextEra says it has a willing customer for solar in Wisconsin Public Power Incorporated (WPPI), a not-for-profit company serving 51 local utilities, including in Cedarburg and Hartford.
Darwish says she understands that utility-scale solar is a big change for Wisconsin.
"So it's really exciting to see us put steel in the ground," she said.
The PSC is expected to decide on the Point Beach Solar project within a few months. The owners of the third big solar project in the state, Badger Hollow in Iowa County, say construction has started there.
Solar skeptics say if more large solar farms are proposed, the state may need rules on where to site them to better protect neighbors.
Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.
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