North Star Solar

The 100-megawatt North Star Solar Farm in Chisago County, Minnesota. With more than 44,000 solar panels spread across more than 1,000 acres, it is the largest solar farm in the Midwest. Wisconsin utility regulators are considering a proposal for a solar farm three times that size in Iowa County. 

STEVENS POINT — Renewable energy has been in the spotlight these days, and that’s good. But as with all things new, we might want to beware some unintended consequences.

There’s the Green New Deal at the federal level. It got predictably tangled in political knots, but raised the dialogue on energy, climate and human impacts. Here at home, Gov. Tony Evers last week signed Wisconsin up with the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 22 states and other groups promising to work toward the goals of the Paris Climate Accord.

At the minimum, Wisconsin is back on the side of science. We also learned last week that moving away from fossil fuels could create thousands of jobs, improve public health, and increase economic activity by nearly $14 billion in Wisconsin, according to a new study by the Center on Wisconsin Stratgegy, or COWS, a UW-Madison think tank.

Other studies, though, predict the transition to renewables will take time and won’t be smooth. In that vein, a proposed 300-megawatt solar farm in Iowa County underscores the need to be careful about some aspects of the shift to renewable energy. The project has met neighborhood opposition, mostly from folks who don’t want to live around a 5.5-square-mile solar array. The conflict mirrors concerns that have arisen in other states where solar farms — usually defined as 100 megawatts or more — have sometimes popped up faster than communities like. Some states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Michigan, have taken steps to steer solar farms away from prime farmland and toward less-desirable sites.

This is tricky business, though. There’s the matter of private property rights for the landowner who wants to enter into a siting agreement. With Wisconsin’s dairy industry teetering and its farm income hurting in general, who’s to stand in the way of a farmer who wants to ease financial stress by entering a long-term lease for solar?

But, as is often true, there’s also the question of property rights for neighbors who feel their property and way of life are negatively affected by what happens across the road.

While hardly a “farm,” as they are called, a solar array is nothing like a fossil-fuel power plant. Solar’s footprint and impacts are also less dramatic and controversial than the wind farms that have caused controversy in parts of the state. Much of the opposition to solar is the not-in-my-backyard variety.

Because Wisconsin has few state or local siting standards for industrial-sized solar projects, options to steer solar farms to appropriate locations are limited. And as is often the case with development, farmland is the course of least resistance.

Some states have encouraged communities to use comprehensive plans to identify the best solar sites and steer solar farms toward marginal agricultural sites. Wisconsin counties with strong farmland protection plans have already identified land they’d like to keep in production.

Would these plans help? I reached out to a trusted contact in a central Wisconsin land conservation department. Here was his reply: “My first thought is that a ‘good’ farmland protection plan could steer solar farms away from prime farmland. ‘Good’ defined as one that used objective criteria that included a prime soils layer in the mapping of the plan. However, I don’t believe that objective criteria exist in every plan that is made, even today.”

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In North Carolina, opposition to solar farms is based on concerns about the impacts of taking too many acres out of production on the agricultural businesses that support farms. One county there slapped a ban on new solar farms. That seems like a drastic step given the benefits solar provides to the power grid, landowners and local municipalities that can benefit from payments in lieu of taxes.

Of course, some opposition to renewable energy is also oddly rooted in political ideology. That’s another good reason to at least develop some guidance at the state and local level, so that the job of transitioning to a more diverse energy system doesn’t run into unnecessary roadblocks.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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