State approves 1,400-acre solar farm in Grant County over neighbor objections

Henry Frear

POTOSI, Wis. — Construction of a 1,400-acre solar farm can proceed in Grant County after Wisconsin’s state regulatory agency, the Public Service Commission, signed off on the project this week over the objections of neighbors.

Groundbreaking on the $250 million Grant County Solar Energy Center is expected to occur this fall. The developer, NextEra Energy Resources, said the 200-megawatt facility could enter service as early as 2022.

“This project has the potential to bring tremendous benefits to Grant County and the town of Potosi, including additional tax revenue, new construction jobs, economic growth and clean, renewable energy for years to come,” said David Gil, executive director of development for NextEra, in a statement.

The panels will be installed on about 1,400 acres of leased land in Potosi Township, along U.S. 61, but more than 2,000 acres have been designated for potential development.

NextEra intends to sell the solar farm to Alliant Energy. The PSC recently authorized the acquisition along with that of five other solar facilities at a total cost of $887 million — part of Alliant’s goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Ben Lipari, director of project development at Alliant Energy, said in a statement the company is “pleased” with the PSC’s decision.

NextEra estimates the project could create up to 350 construction jobs and has agreed to pay $26 million over the array’s 30-year lifespan to Grant County and the Town of Potosi.

However, neighbors criticized the “site and acquire” business model that the two companies used, in which a state utility purchases an installation from an energy developer, and passes on the cost to ratepayers.

As an independent power producer, NextEra is not required to disclose project costs nor demonstrate that the array is preferable to alternatives or even needed at all — conditions that would be required if Alliant constructed the facility.

Alliant previously said customers will incur a “nominal” increase on their electric bills.

Residents also raised concerns that the nearly 732,000 solar panels will generate heat and glare, decrease property values, increase water runoff, harm wildlife and pose safety hazards during severe weather.

The PSC rejected opponents’ calls for an environmental-impact study but will require NextEra to study the array’s impacts on noise, stray voltage and wildlife, according to a PSC spokesperson. The developer will not be required to analyze heat and bird mortality.

Potosi residents Henry and Brianna Frear spearheaded the community effort to halt the project. Henry said he was not informed a hearing would occur this week and was caught unaware by the decision.

“We’re concerned that they are going ahead with this and not guaranteeing that it won’t change our way of life,” he said. “It’s sad.”