Sun powered

Utilities turn to solar farms as a new energy source

Posted on Mar 30, 2021 :: Sustainability
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The way electricity is generated across Wisconsin is beginning to change as more utilities invest in solar farms to lower their carbon emissions.

The state’s first utility-scale solar farm opened in Manitowoc County in 2020. The Two Creeks Solar Park, which is co-owned by Wisconsin Public Service and Madison Gas and Electric, has 500,000 solar panels on 800 acres and can provide enough electricity for more than 33,000 homes.

The 150-megawatt plant cost about $195 million and doubled the state’s installed solar capacity, which includes customer-owned rooftop panels.

“The Two Creeks site is an important step in our sustainability efforts and helping provide our customers with reliable and affordable electricity,” says Matt Cullen, senior communications specialist — media relations, corporate communications for WEC Energy Group, the parent company of WPS. “This was a historic project since it was the first utility-sized field to open.”

Engineering and technology play a vital role in solar farm operation. Solar electric panels create electricity directly from the sun. When the sun hits the panels, semiconductors inside are activated to produce usable electricity. As the farm creates electricity, it enters the electric transmission grid through a substation or a power line. Solar panels can still produce energy on a cloudy day.

The solar panels at Two Creeks are located on racks that rotate to follow the sun, says Cody Craig, asset manager for wind and solar at WEC. 

“It allows the panels to follow the sun all day long, providing more electricity,” he says, adding that provisions are in place to keep snow off the panels and protect them from hail or high winds. “Utility-scale solar farms work just like the panels do
on a house or business, but on a much larger scale.”

Three employees work at Two Creeks Solar Park to handle maintenance and any issues that emerge.

A few years ago, the state’s largest utilities — including WEC — announced plans to become carbon neutral with their energy generation by 2050. To make that happen, utilities are making the switch to solar due to ambitious carbon-reduction pledges and the lower cost for renewable energy, says Michael Vickerman, policy director for RENEW Wisconsin. A recent example of this is WPS closing a coal plant in downtown Green Bay and getting involved in the Two Creeks Solar Park.

“Coal plants require costly upgrades and are not as cost effective as solar. They also produce greenhouse gases, and utilities are looking to reduce their greenhouse gas production,” he says.

WEC is serious about reducing its carbon emissions while saving its customers money, Cullen says.   

“WEC is planning to spend $2 billion in the next five years as we look at alternative energy options. The long-range goal is to save customers over $1 billion in costs over the next 20 years,” he says.

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the cost to build a solar farm has decreased 75 percent in the past decade as manufacturers have begun making more products, lowering the overall price, which also has increased interest, Vickerman says.

First of m

While Two Creeks Solar Park was the first of its kind to open in the state, several more are under development.

The Point Beach Solar farm is slated to open later this year adjacent to the Two Creeks Solar Park. Owned by Point Beach Solar, LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, the 565-acre farm will produce 100 megawatts of electricity, which will be sold to WPPI Energy.

Just to the south in Sheboygan County, a couple of solar projects also are under consideration.

Sheboygan is closing the final coal-fired electricity generation unit at its Edgewater Generating Station and is looking to build a 1-megawatt solar-generation facility on 80 acres in the Sheboygan Business Center. Developed by Alliant Energy, the plan will need approval from the Public Service Commission.

“This project is a win-win, benefiting both the local Sheboygan economy and environment for many years to come. It represents our vision of providing a clean energy future for our customers and the communities we serve,” says Ben Lipari, director of resource development at Alliant Energy.

The addition of the customer-hosted solar facility will allow Sheboygan to gain steady revenue in the form of leased payments from Alliant for the next 25 years. Lipari says the renewable energy could attract new businesses to the area, especially those looking to achieve their environmental, social and corporate governance goals.

The solar facility is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

In the Town of Holland, Onion River Solar proposed a 150-megawatt solar photovoltaic generation facility. Farm organizers say it will provide significant environmental and economic benefits in the community. The electricity generated would be transmitted to an electric utility using the existing electric transmission substation on Risseeuw Road. The project also is awaiting approval from the PSC.

In 2020, Alliant Energy announced an agreement to purchase and operate the facility once the project is completed, says project spokeswoman Megan Hakes.

“The Onion River project will help ensure more of Wisconsin’s energy jobs and dollars are kept local through economical and clean energy generation, while creating a new way for farmers to create value from the sun’s energy,” she says, adding the creation of solar energy does not require the purchase of any raw materials, which means the cost to run the solar farm is predictable.

Hakes says the project’s modules allow for light absorption on both sides of a solar panel, so during the winter, “the panels will absorb light that is reflected off the snow onto the back side of panels.”

Across the state in Iowa County, WEC is building a 300-megawatt solar farm. Known as Badger Hollow, the first phase, which will produce 150 megawatts, will open this year while the second phase will open toward the end of 2022. The two farms are expected to cost an estimated $597 million to build. 

WEC also is working with Madison Gas & Electric on Paris Solar-Battery Park in Kenosha County. The 200-megawatt farm would produce enough electricity to supply 60,000 homes and will be coupled with a battery system that could produce 110 megawatts for up to four hours, allowing the plant to provide power even when the sun isn’t shining.

“Across the state, we will continue to see more alternative energy plants as costs come down and utilities realize their efficiencies,” Vickerman says.