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Area towns, village, schools weigh solar farm

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  • 5 min to read

The developer of a proposed utility-scale solar farm near Cambridge told a May 17 joint meeting of the Cambridge School Board and area municipalities that it’s open to discussing a financial contract with the school district to offset revenue losses that might be linked to the project.

Representatives from the village of Cambridge and the towns of Christiana and Deerfield joined the Cambridge School Board, developers and nearly 50 community members to discuss the solar project being proposed west of Cambridge.

Delaware-based Koshkonong Solar Energy Center, LLC, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Invenergy Solar Development North America, LLC, and an affiliate of Invenergy LLC of Chicago.

Koshkonong Solar is seeking to build a 300 megawatt solar project, with a 6,300 total project area, which the company says would generate enough energy to power 60,000 homes. Construction is envisioned to start in 2022.

Koshkonong Solar filed on April 15 with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, kicking off a review process set to last 6-12 months.

Subsequently, in a joint April 30 filing with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WEPCO), Wisconsin Public Service Corporation (WPSC) and Madison Gas and Electric Company (MGE) said they’d like to buy the proposed Koshkonong Solar Energy Center from Invenergy.

The three utilities said in the filing that they’d like to acquire the proposed solar farm in the towns of Christiana and Deerfield and construct what they envision would be a 300-megawatt solar project and 165 megawatt battery storage facility, for a total capacity of 465 megawatts.

Wisconsin Electric Power Company would have a 75 percent ownership stake, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation 15 percent and Madison Gas and Electric Company 10 percent.

The 4-hour-long meeting on May 17 meeting, held at Cambridge Elementary School and shared virtually, was meant to connect those in the area that might be affected by the proposal.

“The school district of Cambridge is not taking a position on the Koshkonong Solar project, but we realize there are a lot of questions about the implication for our learning community, as well as the district taxpayers,” school board president Tracy Smithback-Travis said. “The district is hosting this meeting to encourage that there is shared information and perspectives.”

A dozen community members spoke during public comment on Monday, all but one against the project.

District concerns

Superintendent Bernie Nikolay addressed a May 11 letter to the Koshkonong Solar Energy Center staff, the Christiana town chair, and the Cambridge village president, detailing the school district’s concerns regarding the solar project.

“At a minimum, the negative impacts on the district must be addressed through project development and contracts with local governments, with the district involved as a key participant,” Nikolay wrote.

Nikolay cited the solar farm’s close proximity to Cambridge Elementary School, after new maps of the project included in the PSC filing showed solar panels proposed to be installed a few hundred feet from the elementary school.

Nikolay asserted that the solar project boundary was about 200 feet from CES, and requested the setback be farther back, as much as two miles away from the school.

School board member Mike Huffman echoed Nikolay’s concerns, and asked Invenergy representatives to explain why the project is proposed so close to the school. He asked whether adjusting the panel placement was an option.

Dan Litchfield, Invenergy’s director of renewable development, said factors like sun exposure, access to transmission lines and suitable land went into the decision. Litchfield also responded that the nearest solar panels would be 200 feet from school property to the northwest, and about 500 feet away from the school building. He added that there would be a “significant mature tree buffer between the school and the solar array.”

“We’re open to further discussion about your concerns,” Litchfield said. “We’re confident this is a safe and healthy proposal.”

Litchfield, later in the meeting, asked to hear more from the district about why they’re requesting a two-mile setback.

“That’s 4,000 acres, that’s a lot,” he said.

Also in his letter, that he read in its entirety on May 17, Nikolay raised concerns about the solar farm negatively impacting the district’s tax levy and revenue, declining future enrollments, falling area property values and a decline in future development in the school district’s boundaries.

The meeting included a presentation from the district’s attorney, Jenna Rousseau of Strang Patteson, Renning, Lewis and Lacy of Green Bay.

Rousseau explained that private land leased to solar projects that are in their entirety 50 megawatts or larger become exempt from local property taxes.

Instead, the solar farm owner pays state taxes, and municipalities and counties receive funding from a state shared revenue utility program. The program is meant to offset service costs, and to compensate for “adverse impacts,” Rousseau said.

However, school districts do not receive those payments, Rousseau said.

The loss of revenue from the district’s tax rolls, Rousseau said, could also impact how districts navigate its tax levy.

“The levy will be the same, it’ll just be distributed differently. Other taxpayers may have to pick up the burden,” Rousseau said.

And while districts like Cambridge may be able to negotiate agreements with solar developers, there may be long-term effects like declines in enrollment and property values that can’t be predicted, Rousseau said.

School board member Jim Womble asked Invenergy representatives whether they would be open to negotiating such an agreement.

“Is Invenergy prepared to work directly with the Cambridge School District to find a way to compensate the school district for immediate or future losses of revenue throughout the life of the project?” Womble asked

“Yes, sir,” Litchfield replied. “We agree that’s not fair.”

He described agreements, contracts or memoranda of understanding that Invenergy has struck with past taxing bodies on other projects. “There’s no reason the school district can’t be a part of that,” Litchfield said.

“I do think there are some opportunities for the village to expand to the west, to the south….We would very much like to work with the local governing bodies here, rather than against,” Litchfield said.

Joint discussion

The school board also invited members of other municipalities to attend on May 17.

Attending in-person were Mark McNally, Cambridge village president; Ted Kumbier, Cambridge village board; Chuck Franklin, Cambridge village board; Wyatt Rose, Cambridge village board; Mark Cook, Christiana town chair; Jeff Nottestad, Christiana town board; and Nick Brattlie, Deerfield town board.

Cambridge village board members Kris Breunig and Eric Wittwer and Deerfield town plan commission member Jim Maple, attended virtually.

Rose, the chair of the village’s energy subcommittee created to address the solar farm proposal, echoed Smithback-Travis’ comments on neutrality.

The energy subcommittee has “not taken a specific stance yet at this time,” Rose said, but rather is “here to listen to you...and concerns you have.”

Franklin spoke briefly during a public comment period, saying the project would be detrimental to both the village and school district, and should be scaled back in size and moved further away from the Cambridge.

He said future development in the school district and village would “both be stagnated for 25 to 50 years.”

“The project is just too close to the village,” Franklin said. “If people want to move here, where are they going to go? I don’t think it’s fair to the residents. I don’t think it’s fair to our kids.”

Newly-elected Christiana Town Chairman Mark Cook came armed with his own slideshow, sharing concerns from the town.

“I’m not here to be anti-solar. I’m here to tell you what the people in the town of Christiana are thinking… What we want is fairness. We want everybody to be treated fairly,” Cook said.

Cook said to town residents, fairness looks like proper setbacks from solar panels, respect for extraterritorial zoning areas and “schools funded the way they should be.”

“Do not balk at the ETZ unless you want a war on your not kill the school district... do not block off the village,” he said.

Cook said he believes the solar project should be scaled down.

“We should not have continuous pieces of property with 1,000 acres (each). It’s not good for us,” Cook said. “A bit of solar is okay. A lot of solar, not okay.”

Cook also expressed concern over the utility companies that are looking to buy the project, saying “if we’re going to have a solar farm, it should be Alliant (Energy).”

“Be fair, and I’ll invite you to the table,” Cook said to Invenergy. “Until then, I don’t want anything to do with you.”

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