By Randall Dullum
JEFFERSON — Members of the public joined elected officials, local leaders and industry professionals Tuesday for a showcase of Badger State Solar, a proposed 149-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility in the Town of Jefferson.
Attendees also had an opportunity to learn about utility scale solar development in the state during the discussion, hosted by the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum (WICEF) at Badger State Solar headquarters, 222 S. Wisconsin Drive in Jefferson.
Ranger Power, a New York-based solar energy company focused on developing utility-scale solar projects in the Midwest, is working with interested area farmers and landowners to develop Jefferson County’s Badger State Solar, which would be sited on approximately 1,000 acres of privately owned and relatively flat and open land west of the City of Jefferson, near the intersection of County Highway Q and State Highway 89.
The solar field would take advantage of the American Transmission Co. substation already located there, which minimizes the project’s footprint and cost, and avoids the need for long transmission lines.
WICEF on Tuesday teamed up with Ranger Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative to showcase energy production around the state and highlight some new emerging technologies.
Thus far, all solar farms built or proposed in Wisconsin are owned by, or sell their electricity to, Wisconsin electric providers. In turn, the electricity is sold to Wisconsin homes and buildings.
In mid-March, Dairyland Power Cooperative announced a commitment to purchase electricity from Badger State Solar, a project still subject to Wisconsin Public Service Commission approval.
The project, located between large population centers with high electrical demand — Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha on one side and Madison, Beloit and Janesville on the other — will produce enough electricity to meet the equivalent annual needs of about 20,000 homes, according to Dairyland.
Construction would begin no earlier than 2020, with commercial operation anticipated to start around 2023.
Andrew Hamilton, Ranger Power’s director of business development, said the Badger State Solar facility would utilize photovoltaic panels mounted on trackers that will rotate throughout the day to follow the sun, reaching a height of between 10 and 12 feet.
Each of the panels, he said, will measure six and- a-half to seven feet in height or “no taller than full-grown corn.” He added that the PV solar projects are quiet, safe and generate electricity without emissions.
Moreover, Hamilton said, the panels are extremely impervious and resilient to cracks or breakage; however, should any need replacing, they simply can be popped out and a new panel installed.
The panels only would produce electrical energy during daylight hours, not during the darkness of night, he noted, adding that during winter, snow simply sloughs off them.
And once installed, the director said, Badger State Solar will require little maintenance and not strain local services. And, unlike other power-generation resources, he said, solar provides low-cost, stably priced electricity.
Hamilton said the system would convert DC (direct- current) power to AC (alternating-current) power so it can be utilized within the electrical system at a higher voltage. The energy first would pass through a transformer and the substation, and then enter the electrical grid.
The project will maintain significant open space between the panels — big enough to drive a truck through — he said, noting that use of suitable pollinator habitat surrounding the panels is being investigated.
At the end of its useful life, expected to be 40 years, the solar installation would be decommissioned, Hamilton said, and Ranger Power would be responsible for removing all the equipment and returning the land to a state suitable for agricultural use.
The landowners who voluntarily have chosen to participate will a sign a long-term contract for the next 40 years, the director pointed out. No eminent domain is being contemplated for this project, he emphasized.
“Participating landowners voluntarily lease their land to host all, or a portion, of a solar farm and receive annual lease payments in return,” Hamilton explained. “The participating landowners find that the long-term lease payments are financially attractive, often because they can help supplement farm income and provide a hedge against changing commodity prices for corn, soybeans and dairy.”
Participating landowners will bear no construction or operating expenses for the solar arrays. Meanwhile, Jeff Rauh, Ranger Power project representative, said Badger State Solar is a new private investment in Jefferson County and will be a major source of new revenue through the Wisconsin Shared Revenue Program.
The solar project, he said, would generate more than $550,000 in new Utility Shared Revenue payments: $325,000 per year for Jefferson County and $225,000 per year for the towns. These shared revenue payments will provide additional funds that can be used for schools, roads and other needs as determined by the town and county that hosts the project.
In terms of increased economic output, Ranger Power anticipates that during the Badger State Solar project’s construction, Wisconsin would see an increase of $45.5 million and Jefferson County, a gain of $7 million. Long-term, the greater economic impact to the state would be $1.5 million per year and Jefferson County, $887,000 annually.
And the solar field is projected to generate longterm annual earnings of $683,000 for Wisconsin and $446,000 for Jefferson County with the investment of more than $100 million. Those earnings will help offset lost tax revenue from crops, Rauh said, adding that by leasing their land for the solar field, farmers will be able to diversify their revenue stream, thereby stabilizing their income.
Solar farms, he informed attendees, also can benefit local governments.
“In Wisconsin, owners of solar farms greater than 50 megawatts pay annually into a utility aid fund which is shared with local governments where the solar farm is located,” Rauh said. “Under the revenue-sharing formula currently in place, a qualifying solar farm will contribute $2,333 per megawatt per year to the county and $1,667 per megawatt to the town or towns hosting the project, for a total of $4,000 per megawatt per year.”
He said Ranger Power, which has an office at the Jefferson Area Business Center, anticipates filing an application to the state’s Public Service Commission this year, as well as securing the land. Next year, he said, the permits should be secured and the power contract signed.
Construction then will commence.
Meanwhile, in the short term, the project is expected to create 498 construction jobs in Wisconsin and 12 long-term jobs in the state, as well as three to five full-time jobs locally once operational.
Ranger Power takes great care to site its projects responsibly, Rauh said, noting, “Our utility-scale solar sites undergo rigorous environmental, cultural and power grid analyses, among others.”
And, he said, Ranger Power “engages with community stakeholders early in the development process to help ensure that our projects reflect the goals and values of our host community.”
One attendee Tuesday inquired whether some of the solar power can be stored in batteries to use at night or other times. He was informed that a “Battery Energy Storage System” is a potential accessory to a solar project, and that battery storage could provide many benefits, including releasing energy after sunset.
The representative addressed another questioner’s concern about taking active agricultural land and transforming it into energy production.
“That’s a question state policymakers are grappling with: how to balance maintaining cropland with the need to shift to more renewable energy sources,” Rauh said.
Combining traditional agricultural production with stable solar-lease payments, he said, makes farms more resilient to shifts in crop prices and yields.
“Solar farms also protect and preserve agricultural land for future farming generations,” Rauh pointed out.
As to how much land is required for solar farms, he said “a good rule of thumb is five to seven acres of land are used for every megawatt of solar power capacity.”
Rauh said Wisconsin is heavily fossil fuel-dependent, but that there has been great interest in the state in augmenting renewable energy. And, as solar energy has become more efficient and cost-effective, and the technology has improved, it has become more competitive with other utilities, he stated.
Wisconsin utilities, he said, have plans to retire several older coal-fired and natural gas plants in the next two to three years and replace them with clean, stable and lower-cost solar energy. He indicated that what’s driving the growth of solar is the declining cost of solar power technology and installation.
“The cost to install solar has declined 75 percent or more in the last decade,” Rauh said. “The cost of new large-scale solar generation has dropped to the point where it is cost-competitive today with traditional coal and natural gas power plants.”
And implementing the Badger State Solar project in the county, he said, “would avert 400 million pounds of carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel emissions — the equivalent of taking 39,000 cars off the road.”