Solar Farms And Wisconsin Cropland: A Good Mix?

Jan 27, 2020

More companies are pushing to build large solar energy farms in Wisconsin. The state's Public Service Commission is expected to vote soon on a proposed 1,200-acre solar project west of the city of Jefferson, in Jefferson County.  

Meanwhile, we received a Beats Me question about solar farms displacing cropland, and specifically mentioned a large development proposed for Grant County. So, we went to Grant County for a look.

READ: Construction Begins In Wisconsin On Large Solar Farms Amid Neighbor Concerns

U.S. Highway 61 is known nationally as the “Blues Highway.”  In 1965, Bob Dylan sang about the road in the song Highway 61 Revisited: "Well, just put some bleachers out in the sun, and have it on Highway 61," he sang.

Within a couple years, at the intersection of U.S. 61 and County Highway B, north of Potosi, it likely won't be bleachers in the sun. But there could be hundreds of thousands of solar panels.

Highway 61 is a popular trucking route. At harvest time, some of the trucks carry corn and other crops grown on the nearly treeless high ground there.

The Florida-based firm NextEra Energy wants to develop 200 megawatts of solar generation on nearly 1,000 acres in Grant County. Project Director Toni Darwish says there's an existing transmission line nearby, and plenty of relatively flat land that faces south. She also says the project would fit into Gov. Tony Evers' plan for carbon-free electricity in Wisconsin within 30 years. 

Christopher Browning and Toni Darwish, both of NextEra Energy, at the recent open house in Potosi.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"We certainly are developing with the customers in mind, with the governor's announcement of wanting to see more renewables in the state. So, we think we are a part of that solution," Darwish told WUWM.

READ: How Big Oil Of The Past Helped Launch The Solar Industry Of Today                    

It's relatively early in the approval process for what would be called the Grant County Solar Energy Center. So, earlier in January, NextEra held an open house in Potosi to answer questions about the project. Darwish briefly spoke to the crowd of about 150 people.

"I don't think we quite expected quite the turnout, so, forgive us if we won't be able to speak with each one of you individually," Darwish said.

Despite that, the audience seemed polite, with a mix of concern and support. Tim Lang, of Potosi, says having the solar farm would be awesome. He says he's previously worked for oil and asphalt companies.

Some of the local residents who came to NextEra Energy's recent open house at the Holiday Garden Event Center in Potosi.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"I'm kind of sad I gave that kind of benefit to the companies over the last 50 years. That now, I think I've got to do my fair share, and more than my fair share, to get us turned around and get us going green," Lang said.

NextEra says the solar farm would bring millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue over the next 30 years, and the farmers and other landowners that agree to host the panels would be paid. But Chuck Oyen, whose farm would be about 1.5 miles from the project, is worried about the potential loss of cropland underneath. 

"It's good farm soil, and someday we might regret this as the population gets more and we need more crop ground to feed the world. It's like urban sprawl. The farmland getting sucked up," Oyen said.

NextEra says posts would be driven into the ground, but the land could eventually return to farming. But a former farmer, Henry Frear, says temporary cropland loss is another reason university researchers, or some other third party, should take a close look at the solar farm boom in Wisconsin. 

"This is happening really fast. By the time we realize people are being hurt — if they are being hurt — it'll be too late," Frear said.

In a Jan. 24 statement, Public Service Commission spokesperson Matthew Sweeney said that the PSC is “aware of concerns about farmland loss and the impact of siting solar power generation.” Sweeney says the PSC has already started a dialogue with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection “to take a closer, more holistic look at the issue.”

The areas shaded green on this photo of a NextEra exhibit would be the approximate locations of the solar panels.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, says 9 million acres are being farmed in Wisconsin and large solar projects are only taking a tiny fraction of the land.

"There's three projects that have been approved, a fourth one that's at the Public Service Commission now. If all of that were approved, that would be 2% of our state's energy use and far less, like one-tenth of 1%, of the farmland in the state," Huebner said.

Huebner says he doesn't think there needs to be statewide rules on solar siting, like there are for the wind power industry. But there could be such proposals in the years ahead if solar energy becomes a much bigger "crop" in Wisconsin.

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