CAMBRIDGE — When Carissa and Nathan Lyle were expecting their first child in 2017, they bought an old farmhouse on about three acres just west of Rockdale.
Nathan, a builder, gutted and remodeled the house and added a garage and pole shed. Surrounded by farm fields, but still close to Madison and Janesville, Carissa said it was an ideal spot — within their budget — to raise a family.
“We just wanted to be in the country, to have that environment for our kids to grow up in,” Carissa said.
She was stunned last winter when she saw engineering plans for a proposed 2,400-acre solar farm that wrapped around three sides of their home.
“It’s kind of a punch in the gut,” she said. “It might not look the same way we thought it would.”
For Dennis Lund, a fourth-generation farmer who lives about 3 miles from the Lyle’s, the project is a lifeline.
Lund, who grew up on a 140-acre farm that supported a family of 10, now farms with three of his brothers, growing corn and soybeans — along with wheat, tobacco and cattle — on about 5,000 acres west of Cambridge.
Today Lund gets little more for corn than his father did in the early 1970s, while new tractors and combines can cost more than $500,000, making it hard for a family to earn a living.
Lund, 51, has agreed to lease about 500 acres of his land for the project, which will generate far more income than his crops without selling off his most valuable asset.
“We don’t have 401(k)s,” Lund said. “Our 401(k) is our land.”
Biggest in state
Known as the Koshkonong Solar Center, the project would entail a 300-megawatt solar farm, which could power nearly 80,000 homes.
It would be the largest renewable energy facility in the state and the first of its kind in Dane County, where seven out of 10 residents worry about climate change but only four in 10 think it will affect them personally, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
The tenth such solar facility considered by Wisconsin regulators, the project highlights the tensions brewing as Wisconsin utilities seek to replace coal-fired power with clean energy.
Supporters say swift and massive renewable energy development is critical to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change and will provide needed income to local landowners and communities.
Opponents say it will forever change the rural landscape around Cambridge and landlock the bedroom community, which has little other land available for new housing. They also worry about falling property values and the hazards of living near a large electric generating facility, which will include a 165-megawatt lithium-ion battery array.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer, is seeking a Public Service Commission permit to build the plant for WEC Energy Group and Madison Gas and Electric, which have proposed to purchase it for $649 million.
The utilities say the plant is needed to transition away from coal, which last year generated 39% of Wisconsin’s electricity, and will be cheaper in the long run for ratepayers than continuing to run coal-fired plants in Portage and Oak Creek. The investment will also generate 10% annual profits for utility shareholders.
The project has generated strong opposition from residents of Cambridge and the surrounding countryside, such as Tara Vasby, who doesn’t like the way developers secured leases before publicly announcing the project, which she said will primarily benefit a handful of large landowners.
Vasby grew up on what’s left of her family’s farm about a mile and a half west of Cambridge — just a few minutes from town but far enough away “so we can have peace and quiet.”
Under the proposal before the PSC, there would be solar panels on three sides of the roughly 5-acre plot where she lives with her two children. But Vasby, who describes herself as a “stubborn Norwegian” with no intention of moving, says her concerns are for the community.
“It’s really about saving Cambridge,” Vasby said. “People like Cambridge for a reason, and it’s not so you can drive into a solar field.”
Others have echoed those sentiments.
“These are people who intentionally purchased or built a home out in the country so that they could get away from all the man-made structures surrounding cities,” wrote resident Joe Schulz. “Now, instead of looking out over the beautiful land surrounding their home, they will see acres and acres of blue/black panels.”
Lund, who will have solar panels 100 feet from his lawn on two sides, has little patience for concerns about views and farmland preservation.
“We feel like we’re in a zoo for the glorification of those who like to look at what we do,” he said. “They’re not concerned if we can survive or not.”
Earlier this month an international panel of scientists issued a “code red” warning that changes not seen for hundreds of thousands of years — including rising sea levels and increasingly severe droughts, floods and fires — are already happening, almost all attributed to human activity.
While it could take hundreds or thousands of years to reverse some of those changes, scientists say there is time to stave off the worst impacts by sharply curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade and eliminating them entirely by 2050.
That’s going to require unprecedented transformations of nearly every sector of society.
This spring, the International Energy Agency said the world will need to quadruple the current pace of wind and solar development while phasing out all fossil fuels. That amounts to the equivalent of creating about four Koshkonong-sized projects per day over the next decade.
Vasby said she recognizes the threat of climate change as she watches news reports of wildfires out west.
“You don’t want to be part of the problem,” she said. “But this is not the right place for this size facility. ... My community is not going to be a sacrificial lamb for this.”
While she understands those concerns, Elizabeth Ward, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter, said there’s no time to delay clean energy development.
“Change is hard, but it’s the direction we need to go,” Ward said. “The impacts of climate change are going to be a lot harder.”
While some utility-scale solar opponents simply don’t see the need, others say the loss of farmland and the disruption is too large a burden for local communities and argue small-scale approaches like rooftop solar are actually more cost-effective and don’t just benefit utility shareholders.
But industry experts say it will take both to meet the timelines.
“Those who would say we can completely power our system by small-scale and rooftop — maybe in a generation or two,” said Tim Baye, a professor of business development and energy specialist at UW-Madison. “Right now it’s all hands on deck.”
Community solar is an increasingly popular concept that allows ratepayers to buy shares in solar farms and sell the energy produced to the utility.
The Sustainable Madison Committee has endorsed the project, which it says will help the city meet its carbon reduction goals while also improving air quality and reducing agricultural runoff — all without the need for additional transmission lines.
Kathy Kuntz, director of Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change, said people don’t typically see the air and water pollution coming from coal-fired plants like South Oak Creek or the Columbia Energy Center near Portage.
“That plant creates emissions that float over our community,” Kuntz said. “We don’t see those. Certainly they have an impact on lives.”
While other large-scale solar projects have stirred concerns about the loss of prime farmland, this is the first in Wisconsin to also compete with urban development.
According to the project application, solar panels would cover much of a 417-acre area to the west that the village has designated for residential development in its comprehensive plan.
“We expect our community to grow,” said Wyatt Rose, a village trustee who chairs an energy subcommittee. But with Lake Ripley to the east and the 422-acre CamRock County Park to the south, Cambridge has limited opportunities to expand.
The village opposes the project as proposed and has asked Invenergy to avoid a roughly 2,600-acre area to the west of its borders that includes about 30% of the primary arrays in the proposal.
Project developer Aidan O’Connor said that is inconsistent with village, town and county land use plans, “which recognize the benefits of keeping open space and not allowing for unchecked suburban sprawl.”
With an estimated population of about 1,480 people, the village grew by about 10% over the past decade, roughly half the rate of other Madison suburbs like Sun Prairie and Middleton, according to the Wisconsin Demographic Services Center.
State demographers project the village will gain about 300 residents over the next two decades, translating into a need for nearly 160 more homes.
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In comments to the PSC, one Cambridge resident called the project a “taking.”
Not so, said Matt Johnson, field director of the Land and Liberty Coalition, a spinoff of the Conservative Energy Network that promotes landowner rights and renewable energy.
“It is a little concerning where some community members are laying claim to other people’s land, saying they need that land for development,” Johnson said. “Hey, this isn’t your land.”
Cities and villages have extraterritorial authority over the subdivision of land and layout of streets within a mile and a half of their boundaries, but those issues don’t come into play with something like a solar plant.
State law gives the Public Service Commission regulatory authority over electricity plants larger than 100 megawatts, leaving communities with very little say in what gets built and where, said Brian Ohm, a professor of planning and landscape architecture at UW-Madison.
“Cities and villages do have limited extraterritorial authority, but in this case that’s not going to come into play,” Ohm said. “The village’s future plans can be a consideration, something that could be a consideration by the PSC, but again there’s nothing that’s going to lock the PSC into the village’s plans for growth.”
Jerry Deschane, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said the project could be precedent setting and it may be time to update state law.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen what is basically an industrial-scale solar farm that proposes to sit right where a community proposes to grow,” Deschane said. “I would hope you won’t see a lot of this in the future.”
The Cambridge school district also opposes the project, which could result in lost revenues when land holding solar panels is taken off the tax rolls.
Under the state’s utility revenue sharing formula, the owners of Koshkonong would pay at least $1.2 million a year to the county and town governments, but there’s no provision for school districts. Invenergy has offered to replace any lost tax revenue, which the company estimates would be about $10,000 a year.
The district has also expressed concerns about placing solar panels within a quarter mile of the elementary school and a lithium-ion battery just over a mile away.
O’Connor said Invenergy “is committed to developing a safely engineered, manufactured, and operated” battery system in accordance with electrical and fire codes and has begun engaging local emergency responders about providing special training.
He dismissed comparisons to a massive fire earlier this summer in Morris, Illinois, where nearly 100 tons of lithium-ion batteries burned for days, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.
“This was not a thoughtfully considered and engineered (storage system), but rather a collection of unknown battery types in a warehouse,” O’Connor said.
Koshkonong is not the first energy project to roil the community, which is home to a 460-megawatt natural gas plant and was considered in the 1970s as a potential site for a nuclear power plant.
Both projects sparked intense local opposition.
Lund was a supervisor for the town of Christiana in the late 1990s and remembers the debate over the natural gas plant, RockGen Energy Center, which critics said would create pollution and lower property values. But he notes revenue from the plant funded a new town hall and garages.
“Those that were against RockGen now get to enjoy the fruits,” he said.
The Lyles can see the RockGen plant from their living room windows, a situation they hoped to remedy by planting some trees. That was a tradeoff they were willing to make in order to live in the country.
“We weren’t going to find this much for that price anywhere else in Dane County,” Carissa said. “We can live with that.”
They weren’t counting on also being surrounded by solar panels.
“Now it’s more than we bargained for,” she said.