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Cambridge school district steps further into solar farm discusssion

Sitting down with representatives from area towns and villages, and ideally also inviting Invenergy, at a joint meeting would ensure all were “on the same page, having the same conversation,” Smithback-Travis said

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As it weighs the potential impact of a proposed utility-scale solar farm on Cambridge schools, the school board envisions sitting down with area towns and villages, and the developer, to discuss the project.

At an April 26 joint meeting of the district’s finance and buildings and grounds committees, school board members and administrators said they’re particularly concerned about new maps showing solar panels proposed to be installed in the town of Christiana, just a few hundred feet from Cambridge Elementary School.

“We have had parents call about safety, with the solar panels and transmission lines that close to the elementary school,” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said.

A Chicago firm’s newly created affiliate on April 15 formally asked the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for approval to build the solar farm west of Cambridge.

According to an April 15 filing with the commission, for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, Delaware-based Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, LLC, would own and operate the 300-megawatt solar farm that is proposed to spread over about 6,300 acres in the towns of Deerfield and Christiana.

Koshkonong Solar Energy Center is a wholly owned subsidiary of Invenergy Solar Development North America, LLC, and an affiliate of Invenergy, LLC, of Chicago, the filing said.

The filing consists of scores of documents found in a search of “Koshkonong Solar” in the PSC’s online search portal at https://apps.psc.wi.gov/APPS/dockets/default.aspx

It begins a PSC review process that is expected to take 6-12 months. A certificate of public convenience and necessity is required in Wisconsin for facilities that generate 100 megawatts of electricity or more. The company hopes to begin construction early in 2022 and to be in operation by mid-2024.

Nikolay said in addition to safety, concerns include that the solar panels, installed via leases with property owners that could extend 50 years, might impede future home development in the Cambridge area. That would impede expansion of the tax base and mean the school district couldn’t count on related revenue into the future. It would also likely impact enrollment, directly tied to state aid payments.

“Losing this much property is definitely concerning for our district,” Nikolay said.

School Board President Tracy Smithback-Travis said the Cambridge district isn’t as directly impacted as the towns of Christiana and Deerfield where the solar panels are proposed to be installed.

But she agreed that it might be affected enough that the district needs to involve itself in coming conversations. Sitting down with representatives from area towns and villages, and ideally also inviting Invenergy, for a joint meeting would ensure all were “on the same page, having the same conversation,” Smithback-Travis said.

The committee didn’t formally vote to extend an invitation or to schedule a meeting, but other board members said they were behind the idea.

School Board member Julie West called it a “great idea, to get everyone to the table at the same time.”

“It makes total sense. I think it will bring some consistency to the conversation,” West said.

Smithback-Travis said her hope is to set up a meeting in coming weeks, potentially at Cambridge Elementary School that is the most directly impacted of the district’s school buildings.

“I certainly hope they will take us up on our invitation,” Smithback-Travis said.

Nikolay said at a closed session with an attorney immediately after the committee meeting, topics were to include whether the school district should apply to be an intervenor in the PSC review process. That special status granted by the PSC would open the school district up to additional comment opportunities and give it additional access to documents and other filed materials.

“You have more ability to raise questions, that is my limited understanding of it,” Nikolay said.

Dane County Board Supervisor Kate McGinnity, who joined in the virtual committee meeting, encouraged the school district to make its concerns known to Invenergy early in the review process, when there is an opportunity for revisions to be made in the plans.

“I would encourage you to openly talk to Invenergy and say ‘we want bigger setbacks from the school... can you guarantee these things for us?’ My understanding is now is the time we can negotiate with this company. I am told that can be done that it can be successfull,” McGinnity said.

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