Large-scale renewable energy projects expected to increase across Wisconsin

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
There's a lot in it for farmers to lease their land for renewable energy projects. A wind turbine only needs up to a half-acre of space and can bring in $10,000 a year in passive income.

Despite 40% of Wisconsin's energy coming from coal plants, some communities are making the transition to wind and solar energy through large-scale solar parks and wind farms.

The transition reflects a desire and need to find alternative energy sources in the pursuit of carbon-reduced emissions and more sustainable energy. The state's utilities, like Wisconsin Public Service, We Energies and Alliant Energy are all looking to purchase more of these large-scale facilities, says Matt Johnson, who is the field of operations director for the Wisconsin Land and Liberty Coalition.

Johnson said these facilities are quickly becoming more cost-effective and efficient as a serious competitor to more traditional forms of energy, like coal, natural gas and even nuclear. He said they also generate job creation and other economic benefits for rural communities and include a guaranteed life span of at least a few decades.

Farmers and landowners can also get involved in these projects by leasing their property to the developers building the facilities, Johnson said, adding that the lease agreements can bring in significant passive income. He said at the minimum, leasing property for a wind or solar energy facility can generate $500 an acre with little responsibilities. Farmers aren't responsible for maintenance and operation of the facilities, and the income is guaranteed for the life of the facility.

"These farmers who are voluntarily participating in these projects have these agreements with developers that provide a significant source of guaranteed revenue," Johnson said. "These projects have the potential to keep some farms in business because it provides that guaranteed revenue. ... Say they get $50,000 or $100,000 a year from leasing their land for solar, they could use that as a hedge against the fluctuations in commodity prices."

MORE: Combining solar panels and lamb grazing increases land productivity

For towns and counties, the facilities provide shared revenue that goes into a pool for the state's local municipalities. A facility that generates more than 50 megawatts of electricity can bring in a significant amount of money to a local county or town board, Johnson said, making it an attractive option for the community as well as the landowner.

Projects that generate more than 99 megawatts have to provide environmental impact studies as well as go through public comments and review processes via the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, while projects under 99 megawatts only need to undergo processes required by the local municipality. Johnson said one megawatt of energy can provide electricity to 375 homes. A 150-megawatt facility, then, can power more than 56,000 homes.

Matt Johnson

"Wisconsin has a few of these projects that are built and constructed or being constructed right now, but we're going to see a significant increase in projects. There's ones that are moving through the Public Service Commission," Johnson said. "What we've seen in Wisconsin in even the last year or so, the electric utilities are having a lot of demand for these projects, especially solar power."

Johnson said battery storage projects are also in high demand – these facilities harvest and keep energy for up to four hours from solar panels and wind turbines and then distribute that energy when it's needed during poor weather, when solar and wind aren't as reliable. It's also usable during peak times of electricity use or if there's a higher than usual need for power.

Alliant Energy has agreed to acquire one gigawatt of solar power, Johnson said, while many more utility companies across the state have made similar agreements or are looking to make them. The organizations that own these facilities also decide how to operate them, with some being directly operated by the organization and others outsourcing operation to a third party.

"Depending on who owns the project, if it's a developer or utility, in either circumstance, the farmer does not pay additional property taxes if they have a wind or solar project on their land," Johnson said. "If the developer owns the project, the developer pays any improvement and property taxes. ... When the utility owns the project, that land property tax roll essentially falls off."

Johnson said Wisconsin is "behind the curve" compared to other Midwestern states in the progression of alternative energy sources. But he also said he's confident we'll see a significant increase in alternative energy projects within the decade – while only 4% of the state's energy usage is accounted for by wind turbines producing over 700 megawatts of power, he said the state could see up to 6,000 megawatts of solar and 1,000 megawatts of wind provide energy by 2030. The state typically uses about 19,000 megawatts.

Acreage for large-scale renewable energy projects also varies, with about 5-10 acres per megawatt in a solar park. Johnson said these projects can be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand acres. Wind turbines generally take up more space due to distancing requirements, but a single turbine still only takes up about a quarter- or half-acre, while a single solar panel usually takes up an entire acre, he said.

"From 2009 to 2020, there was a 90% drop in cost (to operate solar panels). In 2009 it was about $394 a megawatt for solar, and now it's about $30-40 a megawatt for solar," Johnson said. "It's a substantial decrease within even 11 years. That's why we're seeing more products being developed here and across the country."

The Two Creeks solar plant in Manitowoc County went online in November. With half a million solar panels, the solar farm can provide enough power for 33,000 homes.

Two Creeks Solar Park, located in Manitowoc County, is the first and only currently operating large-scale solar facility in the state. Its 500,000 solar panels generate 150 megawatts of power on 800 acres and can power more than 33,000 homes. Wisconsin Public Service owns 100 megawatts, while Madison Gas & Electric own the remaining 50 megawatts. It only took just over a year, between August 2019 and November 2020, to break ground and get the facility fully running.

Matt Cullen, communications specialist for WEC Energy Group that manages WPS, said his organization is committed to creating a more sustainable future with projects like these. Some of their long-term goals include reducing carbon emissions by 80% by the end of 2030 and becoming net carbon neutral by 2050. Cullen also said the company has plans to invest $2 billion in renewable energy within the next five years.

"Just last week, we unveiled some new emissions goals, and they were part of our new and updated climate report. The goals that we've unveiled are among the strongest environmental goals in the utility industry," Cullen said. "Our focus is achieving the goals that we have stated for reducing emissions and building a bright, sustainable future for our customers and for the communities that we serve."

WEC Energy group, which is based in Milwaukee and operates throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, is planning to build 800 megawatts of solar, 100 megawatts of wind and 600 megawatts of battery storage, Cullen said. That's enough energy to power more than 200,000 homes. WPS in particular will be building the state's first large-scale solar battery storage facility in southern Wisconsin as well as the state's largest renewable energy facility in Dane County.

Cullen estimated that these projects could help their customers save $1 billion in power bills over the next two decades. He added that currently 26% of the energy used by WPS and We Energies comes from carbon-free sources. 

"We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with landowners on these projects, from listening to their feedback to potentially working with them to host the equipment on their property," Cullen said.