A Cambridge committee that’s organizing the village’s response to a proposed solar farm in adjacent townships says it needs a lawyer to guide its next steps.
Cambridge’s Energy Subcommittee voted unanimously on Feb. 18 to recommend to the village board that it contract with an attorney at a cost of up to $5,000.
That recommendation was to be considered by the village board at its next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m. Village board meetings continue to be virtual due to Covid-19.
The subcommittee also voted to reach out to the towns of Christiana and Deerfield, and to the villages of Deerfield and Rockdale, about a possible joint meeting or perhaps to invite representatives of those municipalities to a future subcommittee meeting. The next subcommittee meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 4. It will also be virtual due to Covid-19.
The subcommittee discussed at length but didn’t ultimately recommend to the village board that it seek to intervene in the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s review of the Koshkonong Solar Energy Project. The PSC process is expected to kick off by April and take a year to complete. Subcommittee members said that recommendation could be made on March 4.
“This is our next step to move this process along, to be part of that discussion with the PSC,” said subcommittee chair Wyatt Rose, who also sits on the village board.
The subcommittee also said it is still looking for a fifth member, from the Cambridge community. Nick Maas, of Dancing Goat Distillery, ultimately declined the post after the village board voted on Feb. 9 to appoint him.
The subcommittee’s actions followed a short virtual public hearing on Feb. 18, during which a few local residents spoke out against Koshkonong Solar, proposed to be developed by Invenergy, LLC of Chicago.
Koshkonong Solar 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. It is expected to be comparable in size to the Badger Hollow Solar Farm, a 3,500-acre, 300-megawatt Invenergy project in Iowa County.
About 30 people attended the hearing, including subcommittee members. The subcommittee made it clear that it was gathering community questions only during the hearing and via an online survey, and wasn’t prepared to answer questions yet. Once its list of submitted questions is complete, the subcommittee said it would invite Invenergy to answer those publicly, perhaps at an upcoming meeting.
Cambridge Village Administrator Lisa Moen agreed that the goal is to continue to gather questions via the online survey “so we can have a thorough questions and answer period,” at a future meeting.
Invenergy expects this spring to apply for a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, kicking off a year-long state review process. A certificate of public convenience and necessity is required in Wisconsin for facilities that generate 100 megawatts of electricity or more.
Up to 912,000 solar panels could be installed on land leased from area property owners, with each panel able to generate up to 530 watts of electricity, according to an engineering plan Invenergy filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in December.
Invenergy representatives were in the Feb. 18 meeting and spoke, as did the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit that advocates for and seeks to educate citizens about renewable energy.
Heather Allen of RENEW Wisconsin said her non-profit organization is “passionately supportive of renewable energy,” and said projects like Koshkonong Solar will reduce Wisconsin’s reliance on non-renewable energy sources like coal and gas.
“We think projects like this really provide a lot of opportunities,” to make that change, she said.
Issues raised by local residents during the public hearing included how the solar project, proposed to line both sides of U.S. Highway 12-18 west of Cambridge, would affect the village’s ability to grow over the next 25-50 years. That could be the lifespan of the leases Invenergy signs with landowners and also could be the lifetime of the solar equipment there.
The equipment would eventually have to be removed and the land would need to be reclamated; some speakers said that future process is a concern.
Local resident John Barnes said he’s concerned about the potential for metal support posts to remain in the ground after the project’s lifespan concludes. “Forget about using this again as farmland,” if that happens, Barnes said.
Other speakers said the subcommittee needs more information on what they’ve heard could be a potential impact on state funding to the Cambridge schools if the solar farm goes forward.
Christiana resident Roxann Engelstad said the project may violate state law, in being located in the village’s extraterritorial zoning (ETZ) area.
In its ETZ area, just beyond its borders, the village has some say in how development proceeds.
State law says large energy projects like Koshkonong Solar can’t unreasonably interfere with the future development prospects of neighboring communities, Engelstad said. Locating the solar farm in Cambridge’s ETZ area would be an interference, curtailing its potential growth to the west, she contended.
“Now is the time for the village to take action to defend their ETZ zone,” Engelstad said.
Cambridge resident Mary Gjermo said she lines of communication between Invenergy and local residents need to be strong. And Gjermo urged the village to keep moving toward intervening in the PSC review process, even if it doesn’t have all the information it hopes from Invenergy when it formally petitions to do that.
“I’m hesitant to have this committee wait for a lot of information from the company,” Gjermo said.
Aidan O’Connor, Invenergy’s lead developer for Koshkonong Solar, reiterated as he has done at recent local meetings, that the project is still in very early development.
O’Connor said Invenergy doesn’t know yet, for instance, where individual solar panels will be installed, only the tentative project boundaries in which that might broadly happen.
“We are still working out the details; we haven’t yet formally proposed anything,” O’Connor said.
Dan Litchfield, regional director of development for Invenergy, said the company is open to participating in local conversations as the projects moves ahead.
“We are happy to answer questions,” Litchfield said.
O’Connor also pointed to Invenergy’s “long track record” of developing clean energy projects in Wisconsin, citing Badger Hollow and others across the state.
O’Connor said an office is now in place in downtown Cambridge, in the same building as Elegance and Design Studio, 114 S. Pleasant St.. Local residents can find information on Koshonong Solar there. It will be staffed every second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.