A Chicago firm eyeing a large solar farm west of Cambridge offered more details on its plans and timeline at a village meeting last week.
Invenergy team members met virtually on March 4 with Cambridge’s ad-hoc Energy Subcommittee that was created in January to respond to the proposal.
It was the latest is a string of recent area town and village meetings, at which Invenergy representatives have been present.
Local residents also joined in, asking questions directly and posting queries in a chat box.
The up to 375-megawatt Koshkonong Solar Energy Center is proposed to be built on up to 2,600 acres in the towns of Christiana and Deerfield, within a total project area of 11,900 acres.
Invenergy expects in April to file for a certificate of convenience and necessity from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, after filing an engineering plan in December with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
According to the engineering plan, the project might also include an on-site battery energy storage system. It is expected to be comparable in size to the Badger Hollow Solar Farm, a 3,500-acre, 300-megawatt Invenergy project now under construction in Iowa County.
Following a year-long PSC permitting process, construction would begin in 2022 with plans to be operational by 2024.
Energy Subcommittee Chair Wyatt Rose, who also sits on the Cambridge Village Board, said the village is continuing to collect questions about the proposal from local residents via an online submission form. They will be shared with Invenergy for a response, Rose said. A link to the form is on the village’s website: www.ci.cambridge.wi.us. A link to an audio recording of March 4 subcommittee meeting is also now on the website.
Rose reminded meeting attendees that the state approval process for Koshkonong Solar has barely begun, and he said the village is just starting to formulate its role in that.
“This is not the end by any means. This is an ongoing process,” Rose said. “My plan is to continue to have an open line of communication between Invenergy and the village.”
In a lengthy presentation that kicked off the March 4 meeting, Invenergy representatives shared what the solar panel fields might look like, and envisioned the potential for restored prairie and other plantings in the project area. They also talked of the benefits of taking the land out of active crop production for up to 50 years.
“In the end, having rested that farmland will be beneficial. It’s going to be returned in a more fertile state,” said Aiden O’Connor, Invenergy’s lead developer for Koshkonong Solar.
The project site also has the potential to draw pollinators like bees and butterflies and some landowners on other Invenergy sites have grazed sheep among the panels, keeping grasses down.
“There are number of studies that we can site, that show creating grasslands and prairies are good things for building up the soil,” O’Connor continued.
O’Connor stressed that a map in the engineering plan was an early-stage step, designed to show wetlands and other geographical features where the DNR might prohibit development.
A more detailed map showing where the solar panels are proposed to be installed, based on lease agreements with landowners, will be in the application to the PSC in April, O’Connor said.
And O’Connor said even that map will be just “a starting point for discussion.” The PSC’s review process is expected to take a year.
“Over the course of the permitting process there will be many opportunities for public comment,” O’Connor said. He said landowners within a mile of the project boundaries will be notified by the PCS, on how to participate. He also said one of the first steps in the PSC process will be the completion of an environmental impact statement.
He said a property value study will also be part of the PSC application, although Invenergy has downplayed the potential impact to property values.
O’Connor said data from similar solar farm sites have made it “abundantly clear that there is no real impact on property values,” and that homes subsequently put on the market have sold.
“If you don’t want to live near a solar farm, the studies show that someone else will,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said short-term construction jobs and five anticipated permanent maintenance jobs will benefit the Cambridge area and he said the towns of Deerfield and Christiana should expect to receive “a pretty significant windfall” from state tax incentives tied to the project.
Corn vs. solar
O’Connor said Wisconsin’s energy needs will be better fulfilled by installing solar on farm fields, than in planting corn in those fields to be turned into ethanol.
If just 3 percent of the land in Wisconsin that’s currently in ethanol production were converted to solar fields, that would meet about half of the state’s energy needs, O’Connor said.
In response to meeting attendee questions, O’Connor said Invenergy is required to remove solar equipment and to return the project area to landowners “in a similar state that the land was (initially) in.”
Subcommittee member Jeff Milsap said he’s concerned about buried pilings potentially being left behind.
“We have an obligation to landowners and to the Public Service Commission to make sure that happens,” O’Connor responded. “We have no reason to see that there will be significant problems in decommissioning the project,” he added.
However, responding to a question from Village President Mark McNally, O’Connor said Invenergy would not likely be willing to post a bond now to ensure that future reclamation costs are covered.
“Is your company prepared to do that?” McNally questioned.
“There is really no reason to post a bond at the outset,” O’Connor responded.
O’Connor said the Invenergy is considering, but has made no decisions yet, on the type of fencing that might surround the solar panels and a project substation. It is considering 7-to-8-foot-high woven wire deer fence around the solar panels and a high chain-link fence topped by barbed wire around the substation, he said.
Subcommittee member Chuck Franklin said he’s concerned about the project coming up to Cambridge’s western border, limiting the village’s future growth along U.S. Highway 12-18.
“What can you do to help us continue along our path of progress?” Franklin asked.
O’Connor responded that Invenergy intends to invite the village to negotiate a joint development agreement that could include measures like wide setbacks along the highway.
Meeting attendees also questioned whether the solar panels would heat up the ground; O’Connor said that impact is expected to be negligible.
O’Connor asked local residents to be patient as the PSC review process approaches.
“We know that folks are going to have questions, and we want to answer them as best as possible and provide as much information as we can along the development cycle. But we just don’t have all the answers from day one,” he said.