JEFFERSON â€” Plans are progressing for a large solar field in the Town of Jefferson.
Ranger Power is in the process of obtaining permits to develop a 149-megawatt, utility-scale photovoltaic solar facility.
The solar farm, named Badger State Solar, would be sited on 1,000 acres of privately owned land near the intersection of County Highway Q and State Highway 89, taking advantage of the American Transmission Co. (ATC) substation already located there.
Jeff Rauh, a project representative from Ranger Power, a New York-based company, got an enthusiastic reception when he addressed the Jefferson Rotary Club last Wednesday to update members on the project.
Five years ago, Rauh said, it really didnâ€™t make sense to develop solar here. But upgrades in technology, a more efficient production process and lower prices have taken solar from being a â€śpremium productâ€ť to being able to compete more evenly with other utilities.
Wisconsin is heavily fossil-fuel dependent, Rauh said. There is great interest in the state in augmenting renewable energy, however, and as solar energy has become more efficient and cost-effective, it has advanced to the fore.
Meanwhile, a large coal-fired Pleasant Prairie plant at the Illinois state line recently shut down, and the utility that owns it has expressed an interest in replacing this coal-fired generator with renewable energy, he said.
Rauh described Ranger Power as a nationwide company previously concentrated on the East Coast that is looking to expand in the Midwest.
The nearest utility-scale solar generator is located half a mile northeast of Jefferson on Puerner Road. Itâ€™s a comparatively small operation, however: a one-megawatt solar facility with fixed panels.
The Badger State Solar facility would involve a more sophisticated process, with photovoltaic panels mounted on trackers that tilt to follow the sun, rotating throughout the day on a horizontal torque-tube.
They require little maintenance and involve a construction process thatâ€™s â€ślighter on the landâ€ť than the concrete foundations older solar farms traditionally have required, Rauh said.
These panels would be supported by steel posts.
â€śWe donâ€™t have to clear the topsoil,â€ť Rauh said. â€śThey donâ€™t need a lot of excavation. It disturbs the land very little.â€ť
In addition, he said that at the end of the installationâ€™s expected 40-year â€ślife,â€ť the company would be responsible for taking all of the equipment off the land so it could be returned to agriculture.
The equipment used would include the panels; the foundations; combiner boxes, which bring the energy together; and inverters, which convert DC (direct current) power to AC (alternating current) power so it can be used as part of the electrical system.
The energy goes through a transformer and the substation. From there, that power can go on the electric grid.
As it works on this project, Ranger Power has opened an office at the Jefferson Area Business Center, which happens to use solar panels as well. The new installation would involve the same basic technology as that already in use at the JABC, just on a much bigger scale, Rauh said.
â€śUnlike residential solar, which connects at a lower level, ours will be connected at a higher-voltage level,â€ť Rauh said.
The company anticipates having solar panels on 1,000 acres of privately owned land.
The landowners who have chosen to participate will sign a long-term contract for the next 40 years.
Addressing this specific location and why it was a good fit for the company, Rauh said that it makes sense to connect with the existing infrastructure at the Highway Q/Highway 89 substation.
â€śWe have been working with the landowners,â€ť he said. â€śWe have folks who are very interested and who are willing to lease the land to us.â€ť
He said the project also requires the support of the broader community.
In addition, he noted that this geographical area is attractive from an energy perspective, being located close to areas of large energy consumption and power demand (with Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha on one side and Madison, Beloit and Janesville on the other).
The solar resource here is among the best in the state, Rauh said, and the availability of flat, open land makes this a prime location for a solar field.
While it would transform what currently is an agricultural landscape, the solar installation would have some environmental benefits, he pointed out.
There would be large lanes of land between the panels, big enough to drive a truck through, where grasses would be encouraged to grow and pollinators could be undisturbed.
Taking this land out of active farm production reduces the load of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides on the land, he said.
And of course, the energy being produced would replace traditional fossil-fuel-generated energy.
Rauh said that this project would avert 400 million pounds of carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel emissions, the equivalent of keeping 39,000 cars off the road.
In addition, grass cover crops would reduce stormwater runoff in the area.
He emphasized that landowners would participate voluntarily, and the project would kick back revenues to the local towns and county through Utility Shared Revenue payments.
The Badger State Solar project would generate more than $500,000 in new Utility Shared Revenue payments: $325,000 per year for the county and $225,000 per year for the towns.
That helps to offset lost tax revenue from crops, which Rauh valued at about one-tenth of the anticipated revenue sharing.
By leasing their land for this use, farmers will be able to diversify, stabilizing their income, he said.
Meanwhile, in the short term, the project will provide local construction jobs.
Rauh said that the company is in the process of preparing permits right now. It will require a conditional-use permit on the local level for the use of the land.
He said the company anticipates filing the application to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission this year, as well as to secure the land. Next year, the permits should be secured and the interconnection pact signed.
Then the construction will start, with commercial operation expected to begin around 2023.
Asked by Rotarian Harv Linse whether thereâ€™s been any pushback from neighboring residents and what their concerns have been, Rauh said the objections have been largely aesthetic, as it would take what had been a pastoral view of farmland and transform it into a view of photovoltaic panels.
He said some people have expressed concerns over potential noise; however, the array is pretty quiet, with the only noise coming from cooling fans during the day.
There also have been concerns about taking active farmland and putting it into energy production.
â€śThatâ€™s a question the state is weighing: how to balance maintaining cropland with the need to shift to more renewable energy,â€ť he said.
Asked where the photovoltaic panels would be made, he said the company had not yet settled on a maker yet, but nine out of 10 of the top solar panel producers are located in China.
â€śWe are trying to hold off as long as we can before we commit to a particular panel-maker,â€ť he said. â€śHowever, weâ€™re unlikely to see a complete reversal in the market.â€ť