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Just in time for Earth Day, a bipartisan panel of state regulators has approved the largest solar farm in the Midwest.

Congratulations to the Public Service Commission for supporting the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow solar project in Iowa County on April 11. Badger Hollow and a second solar farm near Kewaunee won approval and will generate electricity for nearly 110,000 customers, including many households that get power from Madison Gas and Electric.

PSC Commissioner Mike Huebsch, a former Republican speaker of the Assembly, joined PSC Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, in backing the $390 million in projects that will more than quintuple Wisconsin’s solar energy capacity.

Wisconsin still relies on coal for more than half of its electrical power. But the new solar farms constitute “a significant step toward going carbon-free,” Huebsch said.

He’s right.

The projects will offset an estimated 573,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that speeds climate change, warms the planet and contributes to extreme weather. The solar farms also will reduce the pollution that triggers asthma and other illness.

The cost may sound expensive. But investing in solar will be more cost-effective than coal. The utilities estimate the solar farms will cost ratepayers $181 million less than other alternatives to replace aging fossil-fuel generators.

Critics of putting an estimated 1.2 million solar panels on more than 2,000 acres in rural Iowa County worry about losing productive farmland. But with government programs paying farmers in Iowa County millions of dollars a year not to plant crops on 23,500 acres, it’s clear the solar panel won’t be disrupting anyone’s food supply. Moreover, the developer of the Badger Hollow solar farm, Invenergy, plans to pay landowners $700 an acre annually for 25 years. That’s five times the average rate for renting Wisconsin cropland, and some neighboring landowners will earn money.

Some people understandably would prefer scenic farmland to a sea of shiny panels at the site. But the real choice is between quiet solar panels pulling in enormous amounts of clean energy from the sun, versus coal companies continuing to dig the fossil fuel from the ground, shipping it across the country on trains to Wisconsin, and then burning it and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The choice is clear: Wisconsin needs more solar, wind, geothermal and other alternatives to carbon-based energy. So does America and the rest of the world.

Producing more clean energy here will create jobs in Wisconsin, rather than sending the economic benefits of power generation out of state.

The PSC should give strong consideration to more solar and wind farms, and encourage the pursuit of technology to store the energy for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Invenergy is seeking the first utility-scale battery storage system for solar power in Kenosha County. Nearly a dozen more solar farms are in the works.

Despite many environmental challenges, this Earth Day brings sunny news about energy advances and smart decisions for Wisconsin’s power grid that will benefit all residents and future generations.

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