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Acres of solar panels help power Verona-based Epic Systems Corp., one of the nation's biggest electronic health records companies. But two projects planned in Wisconsin -- the Badger Hollow Solar Farm in Iowa County and the Two Creeks Solar Farm in northeastern Wisconsin -- would dwarf Epic's installation. Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service, of Green Bay, will buy Two Creeks and half of the Badger Hollow project.

Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service, of Green Bay, say they will be partners in purchasing two solar energy projects that would be the biggest solar installations not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the Midwest.

The Badger Hollow Solar Farm will be massive — with as many as 1.2 million solar panels over 3,500 acres, according to developer Invenergy. It will be in Iowa County, between the villages of Montfort and Cobb, about 60 miles west of Madison, and it could produce as much as 300 megawatts of electricity when the sun is shining.

The Two Creeks solar project, proposed by NextEra Energy Resources, will be in northeastern Wisconsin in the town of Two Creeks and will generate up to 150 megawatts.

MGE plans to buy 50 megawatts of each of the installations; WPS will buy 100 megawatts of each.

Total cost for the two utilities will be about $390 million. MGE’s share of the cost will be $130 million.

“This is another step forward as we move toward a more sustainable energy future and deep decarbonization,” said Jeff Keebler, MGE president and CEO.

MGE currently has less than 1 megawatt of solar power, spokesman Steve Schultz said.

Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy, said Badger Hollow would be the biggest solar farm in the Midwest, topping the 100-megawatt North Star solar farm north of Minneapolis.

“It’s a landmark day for solar energy in Wisconsin,” Huebner said. “The costs have come down dramatically; homeowners and businesses have seen that. We’re very excited that our power companies are also making this investment to create renewable energy here in Wisconsin.”

RENEW said Wisconsin currently has about 85 megawatts of solar power on rooftops and at ground level, so the additional 300 megawatts that MGE and WPS will buy will more than quadruple the solar impact in the state.

Huebner said 300 megawatts of solar energy is comparable to the amount used by 67,000 homes and will provide about 1 percent of Wisconsin’s annual electricity production.

Why Iowa County

Dan Litchfield, project manager for Badger Hollow and director of renewable development for Invenergy, cited four reasons why the Montfort-Cobb area is ideal:

  • In southwestern Wisconsin, the “solar resource” is the best in the state.
  • There’s access to the electrical grid via existing 138-kilovolt transmission lines.
  • The land is open and flat.
  • The communities are open to the project.

Litchfield said farmers have voluntarily signed easements to provide a total of 3,500 acres — “more than we need,” he said.

For farm families, the solar option is, “literally, a new opportunity out of the sky,” said Litchfield. “Some are leasing us their entire farm and they’re going to retire. This is an opportunity for them to keep their land in the family.”

Litchfield would not say how much the farmers are being paid. “It’s more than they can earn by farming and it’s definitely more stable,” he said.

He said while MGE and WPS have committed to buy a total of 150 megawatts, Invenergy plans to build Badger Hollow with a 300-megawatt capacity. That would take 900,000 to 1.2 million solar modules, he said.

“This is just a great start. It does not mean we’ll be scaling the project back,” Litchfield said.

He said at 300 megawatts capacity, the Iowa County solar farm would be one of the biggest in the U.S., outside of California and Arizona.

Litchfield also said he is working to develop three additional sites in southern Wisconsin.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Elizabeth Katt Reinders applauded the news. “Wisconsin is only beginning to scratch the surface in capitalizing on solar energy potential in our state,” she said.

Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, said CUB will take a close look at the project “to make sure it is cost effective.”

MGE and WPS submitted their application to the state Public Service Commission on Thursday. If the three-member regulatory panel approves it by the end of the year, construction could begin in spring 2019 and the solar units could be operating commercially by the end of 2020.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.