County Board hears solar farm plans - No public comment on 2019 budget

 

                                

 JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting Tuesday, ostensibly a public hearing for the proposed 2019 county budget. However, the majority of the two-hour session focused on a solar farm proposed near Concord.

Addressing supervisors were attorney and former Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Frank and Dan Litchfield, director of renewable development for the Chicago-based firm Invenergy, one of two solar power companies with proposed utility-scale solar farms in Jefferson County.

A representative from the second company, Ranger Power, was present at the meeting, and spoke to residents and supervisors afterward, but he did not make a formal presentation. Ranger Power is looking to build a solar site west of the City of Jefferson.

Frank spoke on the regulatory process for creating a new utility while Litchfield outlined the actual proposal to build a solar-based utility or “solar farm” in the northeast part of Jefferson County near Concord, close to the location of the existing We Energies facility.

During the public comment period prior to the presentations, four of the 15 county residents in attendance spoke against the Invenergy project, named Sinnissippi Solar Farm.

In summary, they voiced concerns about issues such as loss of property values and “rural beauty”; the lack of state and county guidelines and regulations for solar utilities; what will happen to the solar panels once they are decommissioned; if the solar farm is sold, whether the next company would respect any agreements made with Invenergy; turning agricultural land into “industrial blight”; an out-of-state company taking over local property; and that the proposed project is inconsistent with the county’s farmland preservation program, zoning policy and comprehensive plans.

Both Frank and Litchfield tried to address many of those concerns in their presentations.

Litchfield began by citing the numerous partners Invenergy has in the utility and co-op, commercial and financial industries. He said that the Sinnissippi Solar Farm would create about 500 local jobs during the construction process, and there would be five full time, high-skilled operators once the facility was built.

In summary, he said the proposal covers about 2,100 acres and would use existing transmission lines to transport the solar-generated electricity. The 300-megawatt facility would generate enough energy to support 75,000 homes a year. There would be no emissions or odors, and there would be no water emissions, unlike some non-solar energy facilities. He said he expects the permitting process to be finished in 2019 or 2020 and operations to start in 2023.

Litchfield said the word “farm” was used because the facility would be agricultural friendly, with the solar panel array on top of native species grass. Once completed, the surrounding area would be covered in native vegetation, including “pollinator” flowers that will attract bees and butterflies. While there will be some mowing between the panels, the plan is to use sheep to graze the natural vegetation around the array.

He noted that animals larger than sheep could damage the panels. The plants would assist in stormwater runoff, and “low-growth crops” would be considered, as well.

The panels will be about 18 inches off the ground, he said, and tilt to follow the direction of the sun each day. At maximum tilt, they would be no more than 15 feet high. They are covered in an anti-reflective coating to prevent glare.

There would be little to no noise from the panels, though the energy inverters do create a “low-level” sound. Litchfield compared it to the ambient noise that would be indistinguishable from other daytime noise. The solar panels and inverters would not work at night.

Litchfield said many property owners already have signed up to lease land to Invenergy, and there are several reasons they did so. Among them are retired farmers still living on the land, but not farming — he called it a “solar pension” — and that working farmers see it as an investment against possible commodity prices falling. Other farmers are using the income to invest in new agricultural technology, he said.

The solar panels are designed to last between 25 and 50 years. Litchfield said that the facility could be removed after that time and the areas could revert back to farmland. He added that there is no data in Wisconsin about the effect on property values, but in Minnesota and North Carolina, properties near solar farms had no noticeable difference in value from before the solar panels were placed.

Litchfield said there are federal tax incentives for the company to complete the facility in a timely manner, and that there would be a local benefit as well, financially. The project will use “utility aid” payment to Jefferson County and affected municipalities under the shared revenue program. The governments are expected to share about $1.2 million a year, based on the number of installed megawatts in each jurisdiction.

Frank, meanwhile, emphasized that while he is a lawyer, he was not providing any legal opinions in his remarks; rather he was simply explaining the process — the “review standards, local pre-emptions and practical considerations” — for establishing utilities such as Invenergy’s proposal through the Public Service Commission (PSC).

To summarize, Frank said the application process for companies building a “large electrical generating facility of 100 megawatts or more” require a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) that provides “comprehensive information” for review by PSC staff. The company then notifies the PSC and state Department of Natural Resources; state law requires an engineering plan to be submitted to the DNR, which then has 30 days to file necessary permits and approvals.

Within 10 days of that filing, the PSC formally notifies any municipality that might be affected by the proposed utility site. The PSC then makes a “completeness determination” to make sure the application is done correctly; if not, the company can reapply.

Assuming it is complete, Frank said, the PSC opens a “docket” for a prehearing conference, at which time an administrative law judge is assigned to rule on any intervening party’s request, issues are identified and a prehearing is scheduled. This opens a deadline-driven period in which a “discovery” process — similar to the discovery process in a court hearing — is undertaken.

Frank said that a “technical hearing” would be held to focus on the specifics of the application, followed by a public hearing. A “decision matrix” is developed by PSC staff. The PSC commissioners then have 180 days to make its decision, although extensions are possible. Frank said the process takes about 12 to 18 months, and that there is an appeal process available through a review in circuit court.

The three-members of the PSC Commission are appointed by the governor.

Review standards for locations must consider alternative locations, individual hardships and “safety, reliability and environmental factors,” Frank said. Those standards also state the proposed utility will “not have undue adverse impacts on other environmental values, such as but not limited to, ecological bales, public health and welfare, historic sites, geological formations, aesthetics of land and water or recreational use.” It also sates the proposed facility “will not unreasonably interfere with the orderly land use and development plans for the area involved.”

This is where things get complicated. Frank noted that among the many things the PSC Commission must consider is the state energy policy. Frank quoted part of that policy: “It is the goal of the state that, to the extent it is cost effective and technically feasible, all new installed capacity for electrical generation in the state be based on renewable energy resources, including hydroelectric, wood, wind, solar, refuse, agricultural and biomass energy resources.”

Frank explained that the PSC rules categorize actions as Type I, II or III, and the PSC categorizes solar power as a Type III action, meaning that an environmental impact study is not required, but the PSC Commission can request one if it chooses.

Frank also quoted a state statute that read, “If installation or utilization of a facility for which a CPCN has been granted is precluded or inhibited by a local ordinance, the installation and utilization of the facility may nevertheless proceed.”

Frank added that the issue — which has not been firmly settled in courts yet although there have been some cases on the subject — is that the PSC can override local authority regarding the utility facility such as a solar farm.

Frank concluded by recommending that any affected municipality should begin a dialogue with the companies building solar farms to smooth out any major concerns before going to the PSC. He added that municipalities can intervene legally, but that process is incredibly expensive.

After the meeting, county board Chairperson Jim Schroeder reiterated that the presenters were invited to speak in order to provide both supervisors and residents data on the issues.

“The presentations were for informational purposes only, and there were no questions for the board to decide this evening,” he said. “There are questions whether the county and its board have any authority whatsoever approving these proposed projects, but, we did want the supervisors to be as well-informed as possible in case we do need to make a decision.”

 
 

Also making a presentation to the board was Megan Hartwick, executive director of the United Way of Jefferson and North Walworth Counties.

Hartwick played a brief video on the United Way that highlighted the partnerships and support it provides in the county. The video was made by a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater as a final senior project.

She noted the United Way supports 31 non-profit organizations and community projects in the county by providing about $238,000 to those groups. Over $1.2 million has been provided over the last five years.

The United Way partners with Jefferson County directly through programs like Head Start, Hartwick said, thanking all the businesses and individuals who donate and/or support the United Way, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

The board took no action on the issues raised in the presentations since all were delivered for informational purposes only. However, the board did act on a few unrelated matters after the presentations were completed.

Also Tuesday, the board did hold the public hearing for the proposed 2019 county budget. No one from the public registered to speak during the hearing, which lasted about 30 seconds.

The recommended tax levy is $28,499,733. That includes both the countywide general operations mill rate, or tax rate, of $3.828 per $1,000 equalized valuation and the debt service tax rate of $0.1637, which adds up to an overall tax rate of $3.991 per $1,000 of equalized property value.

Without the debt service, the general operations levy is $27,636,332.

For the 2018 budget, the general operations tax rate is $3.9882, meaning that there will be a decrease of $0.1604 per $1,000 of equalized property value in 2019. Roughly speaking, the general operations tax rate translates approximately to a $160 decrease per $100,000 of equalized property value.

Additionally, for the 2019 budget, the non-countywide levies — which are “apportioned to the municipalities benefiting from the service being furnished” by the county, as stated in the recommendation — will be $863,411 (a tax rate of $0.1442 per $1,000 equalized value) for the Health Department and $1,151,101 (a tax rate of $0.3346 per $1,000) for library services.

When those two figures are added to both general operations and debt service, the total levy becomes $29,650,000.

The budget likely will be approved by the board at its Nov. 13 meeting, after discussing and voting upon any proposed amendments made by supervisors that night.

Also Tuesday, the board approved inter-related ordinance amendments to clarify health saving accounts and health reimbursement agreements as the county switches to a new health-care consortium with Dodge County. It also made several citizen appointments to county committees.

The board unanimously passed an in-memoriam resolution in remembrance of Don Carroll, who passed away last month, for his nine years of service on the county’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The resolution was read by Supervisor Steve Nass, who is the chairperson of the Zoning Board. He also presented the resolution, on a plaque, to Carroll’s family members.