As a Chicago firm prepares to seek Wisconsin Public Service Commission approval for a large Cambridge-area solar energy project, local discussion about it is heating up.
On Tuesday night, Jan. 19, at its regular monthly meeting, the Christiana Town Board plans to discuss what its role might be in the state regulatory process.
Town Chairman Maureen Lien said she expects to talk about how the town board might work with Invenergy, LCC, as the company moves through the anticipated year-long PSC process. She said she also expects the board to talk about how to best represent its citizens, some of whom are opposed and others of whom have already agreed to lease land to Invenergy.
On Dec. 18, Invenergy took an initial step toward developing its Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, by filing a 27-page engineering plan with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The filing came 16 months after the firm shared at a heavily-attended meeting at the Christiana Town Hall its intention to build the 375-megawatt electrical generation facility in the Towns of Deerfield and Christiana, just west of Cambridge and bisected by U.S. Highway 12-18.
According to the engineering plan submitted to the DNR, it would be located on up to 2,600 acres, within a total project area of 11,900 acres.
Lien said Tuesday night's meeting will include time for public comment. She said when it became clear that a significant number of local residents hoped to address the town board, the meeting shifted from in-person to virtual to meet Dane County Covid-19 public health guidelines.
The virtual meeting begins at 6 p.m. on Zoom.
The link to join the meeting is: https://zoom.us/j/91048545370?pwd=bmpSN3ZnNTBoN3dhZGo4ditwSWk3Zz09
The meeting ID is 910 4854 5370. The password is 014203.
To dial in by telephone, without accompanying online video, call (312) 626-6799. When prompted, enter the same meeting ID and password as listed above.
Invenergy expects early in 2021 to apply for a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the PSC. State statute requires that it submit the engineering plan to the DNR at least 60 days before filing for the certificate. A certificate of public convenience and necessity from the PSC is required for facilities that generate 100 megawatts of electricity or more.
A hearing before the commission has not yet been scheduled for the proposal.
The documents submitted to the DNR list 3 federal, 7 state, 4 Dane County and 5 permits from the Towns of Christiana and Deerfield that Invenergy would have to obtain to proceed.
What is proposed is comparable to the Badger Hollow Solar Farm, a 3,500-acre, 300-megawatt Invenergy project in Iowa County.
The Koshkonong Solar Energy Project could involve the installation of up to 912,000 solar panels on land leased from area property owners, with each panel able to generate up to 530 watts of electricity, the engineering plan said.
The project is also envisioned to involve the construction of new gravel access roads; a new substation with at least two main transformers and other equipment; new above and below ground cabling; a new quarter-mile-long transmission line to connect into the American Transmission Company’s Rockdale substation; a new operations and maintenance facility; and a battery storage system.
The report to the DNR includes environmental impact information, noting the potential impact on wetlands and streams within the project area and the potential impact to plant and animal species including bats and bumblebees, whooping cranes and varieties of orchid, clover and milkweed. One natural area, the 40-acre Smith-Reiner Drumlin Prairie preserve owned by the Prairie Enthusiasts, is within the project area.
The properties envisioned to be developed are a patchwork across the project area, mostly currently in agriculture use. Invenergy has said that the land will remain zoned for agriculture use.
Invenergy, that develops, builds, owns and operates large-scale wind, natural gas, solar and battery storage projects across the United States and internationally, hopes to begin construction in the Cambridge area early in 2022 and to be in operation by late 2023.
In a recent email, Invenergy Project Developer Aidan O’Connor said filing for a certificate of public convenience and necessity begins the year-long PSC review and approval process that will involve opportunities for public input.
O’Connor said the site is ideal, with “flat, open land with willing participants and tremendous access to the electrical grid via on-site transmission lines and substations. And it’s near the growing Madison metropolitan area that is experiencing a growing demand for electricity and clean electricity.”
The company said it will bring construction jobs and up to five permanent operations and maintenance jobs to the Cambridge area, and it expects to contribute $1.5 million per year in tax revenue split between Dane County and the two townships and will also invest in the local Cambridge-area economy.
Property owners – mainly local farmers — that agree to lease their land to Invenergy will benefit financially from those lease payments.
“We are grateful for the support that the project enjoys in Christiana and Deerfield townships and look forward to continuing to work with landowners and community members as we move through the review process,” O’Connor said.
In a letter to area property owners late in 2020, O’Connor said the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center will generate enough sustainable energy to power 60,000 homes “and reduce emissions equivalent to taking 65,000 cars off the road each year.”
There is organized local opposition.
Tara Vasby, who lives on Clear View Road in the Town of Christiana, told the town board in December that her family’s concerns include long-term damage to property values, animal and human health and soil; inadequate property line setbacks; noise; groundwater impacts; aesthetics; and the use of prime farmland for development. Vasby also said her family would like more information on the future decommissioning and removal of the equipment and restoration.
Vasby also asked at the December meeting that any town board members leasing land to Invenergy recuse themselves going forward from voting on anything related to the project.
Station expansion referendum
Additionally at the Jan. 19 meeting, the town board expects to vote on whether to set a non-binding April referendum to fund its portion of a proposed $6.5 million Cambridge-area fire and EMS station expansion. Christiana and four other area municipalities – Cambridge, Rockdale, the Town of Oakland and the Town of Lake Mills – share the annual cost to operate the Cambridge-are fire and EMS, and are also proposed to split the cost of the station expansion.