Green light for state’s largest solar project in Dane County

Environmental activists hope many more follow; unions want in-state job guarantees

By: - April 8, 2022 6:30 am
Solar Farm

Solar energy farm (American Public Power Assn. | Unsplash)

State regulators gave the all clear Thursday to the largest Wisconsin solar array yet, to be built on 4,600 acres of land in Dane County.

The proposed Koshkonong Solar Energy Center will generate 300 megawatts of power and include storage battery capacity for 165 megawatts. The project is being developed by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC and its Invenergy Solar Development affiliate. When the project is finished, it is to be sold to a consortium of utilities, Wisconsin Electric Power Company, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and Madison Gas and Electric Company.

Construction is to start later this year with a target date of December 2024 for completion.

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) gave its final approval to the project Thursday. In addition to setting rates for electrical, natural gas, water and other utilities, the PSC has oversight on utility-scale solar energy projects as well as on other large-scale alternative energy generation facilities.

The project’s inclusion of battery storage is an important component, according to Chelsea Chandler, who directs climate and energy programs for the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, ensuring reliable power from the solar farm when overcast or rainy skies prevent sunlight from generating electricity. 

The Koshkonong project represents a milestone in solar power development in Wisconsin, Chandler says. Currently, less than 1% of the state’s electrical capacity comes from solar. 

“I think we’re really on the cusp of change here,” Chandler says. “We need to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.”

Clean Wisconsin, which submitted expert testimony during the review process for the project, concluded that the Koshkonong facility will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 15-20 million tons over its expected 35-year lifetime. 

The organization also calculated that converting property for the solar farm away from cropland would reduce runoff from polluted water, including 100,000 pounds of phosphorus.

Several other solar farms are in stages of development, but to make a larger dent in the generation of carbon dioxide that is primarily responsible for climate change that has been warming the atmosphere, activists have called for a much larger investment in the technology.

“We really need more of these larger, utility-scale solar projects,” Chandler says. “And we need to make it easier for individual families and businesses” to install their own on-site solar generation equipment.

The looming boom in solar development also promises potential jobs during the construction process, but much smaller employment during the operating life of the facilities.

For the unions that employ utility workers, ensuring that those jobs are done by Wisconsin workers has become a priority.

“We represent a lot of members that are in legacy energy production,” says Kent Miller, assistant business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers Union District Council. Those include power plants fired by coal and natural gas as well as workers who build pipelines that carry oil. 

“All that legacy work that our members and local workers primarily performed for the utilities has had good labor standards and good living wages,” Miller says. 

With the emergence of utility scale solar projects, “our advocacy is to have those same types of labor standards and the same types of benefits” for the work in building those projects.

In February, the Laborers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers signed a project labor agreement with a Minnesota-based contractor to build a solar farm in the Kenosha County town of Paris. That solar farm is also being developed by Invenergy. The agreement ensures that the contractor will hire project workers locally and under union contracts.

The Laborers have had mixed results in persuading the PSC to write provisions into its solar project approvals relating to the makeup of the project workforce.

When the commission approved a solar farm in Grant County in May 2021, the agency included a requirement that the developer submit quarterly reports on its efforts to recruit Wisconsin workers for jobs on the project in response to union comments during the project’s review.

Although there was a proposal to include a similar reporting requirement in the Koshkonong project, the two commissioners who voted on it — PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq and Ellen Nowak — divided on the question of including it.

Nowak, who was appointed in the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker, said that in her view “employment numbers are outside the scope of this proceeding.”

Valcq favored such a requirement as a way of holding developers accountable for claims they make during the approval process. “If applicants are going to continue to tout significant local economic benefits as a result of the projects, then I would expect them to be hiring local labor,” she said.

The third commissioner, Tyler Huebner, who like Valcq was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, recused himself from voting, resulting in a tie that effectively excluded the requirement. 

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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