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Company proposes solar array atop closed landfill

Jeffrey Brown, with Madison-based Terra Focus, speaking to the Waupaca Common Council about a proposed solar array.

Waupaca Common Council hears plan

By Robert Cloud

Solar panels may provide electricity for Waupaca residents and businesses within the next two to five years, depending on state legislation and council approval.

Jeffrey Brown told the Waupaca Common Council at its June 20 meeting that his Madison-based firm, Terra Focus, hopes to build two solar arrays in the city.

Terra Focus works with ClearPath, a company that has developed community-based solar farms primarily in New York and Massachusetts. It is currently expanding its efforts into Wisconsin.

“We are impact advisors, developers and investors,” Brown said regarding his firm. “We work on developing infrastructure and climate strategies for both the benefit of economic development, as well as climate positive outcomes.”

Brown said two sites in Waupaca seem conducive to solar energy development: a closed landfill on the city’s north side and city-owned farmland on the south side.

Terra Focus hopes to bring in $10 million to $12 million in initial capital to generate a total of 5 megawatts of power annually from both sites combined.

A single megawatt can generate enough electricity for 1,000 homes, according to The OGM, an energy-focused news website.

The landfill site can generate electricity for the downtown area, while the farmland site can provide power for the industrial park and the foundry.

“We won’t build projects in the state of Wisconsin unless we can deliver power to community members at a 10 discount to current market prices,” Brown said.

Wisconsin’s average electricity rates ranked highest among eight other Midwestern states, according to Wisconsin Public Utility Commission’s 2022 Strategic Energy Assessment. Industrial power consumers in Wisconsin also pay higher rates that in other states.

Clean energy can lower energy costs for industry. It can also attract businesses that want to offset carbon-based energy consumption with clean energy.

How solar power brings industry

For example, Toyota built a plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, that relies on electricity generated by fossil fuels.

However, Toyota is paying for output from a large solar array about 150 miles away to offset its fossil-fuel energy consumption.

The solar array is being built on top of a closed coal mine and Toyota has agreed to purchase 100 megawatts of energy from the project.

“The move is in line with the company’s plans to make all its operations in North America carbon neutral by 2035,” according to a May 24 press release from Toyota Motors.

The ability to generate clean power for industry could help local economic development, Brown said.

ClearPath is also considering a solar array on top of the closed landfill could provide electricity for downtown businesses and residents.

“We’ve done it in the past on landfills,” Brown said. “We can do this in partnership with the DNR.”

Brown said the state Department of Natural Resources is currently devising a program that would take advantage of state and federal funding to develop clean energy projects on closed landfills.

He also stressed that the solar panels at the closed landfill will not be an eyesore.

“This project will be so far tucked away from the road most people will not know it exists,” Brown said.

Generating revenues

Brown noted the landfill and farmland are currently generating few if any revenues for the city.

If the two sites were developed into solar arrays, they could provide the city with two streams of revenues in the form of $1,000 per acre lease payments and payments in lieu of taxes over a minimum 25-year period, Brown said.

During the project’s initial due diligence stage, ClearPath will conduct site assessments, land title surveys, environmental studies, obtaining permits and securing electricity contracts for its solar energy output.

It will also make option payments to the city prior to building the array and develop and maintain bonds for decommissioning the site if it closes.

Bipartisan solar energy bills

Brown said state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are currently considering bills that would encourage small, community-based solar projects.

Although community-based solar has support from those who favor a more competitive energy market, as well as advocates of sustainable energy, utility companies are lobbying against the bill because it sets less restrictive regulations for the smaller solar companies.

Once the regulatory and permitting issues are resolved, ClearPath estimates construction will take six to 10 years.

Brown said ClearPath will develop, finance, build and operate the projects.

All the equity, totalling at least $10 million, “comes from our own pockets,” Brown said.

Ald. Henry Veleker noted that it was a high-risk endeavor since the project relied on state legislation to happen.

“It’s a 100% risk for us,” Brown said. “That’s why we’ll try to take it slow during the legislative process.”

Ald. Collin Dykstra asked if the solar projects could prevent future developments such as housing.

“We would be building on a landfill,” Brown said, noting that most people do not want to be near landfills.

In addition to being set back from the road, the solar array would be screened by trees planted along the fence line.

He added that the array on the city’s south side would probably be more contentious.

“Why would anyone say not to this?” asked Ald. Dmitri Martin, adding that the proposal “seems great from every perspective.”

Brown said ClearPath’s goal was to avoid placing solar arrays on prime farmland and use marginal farmland instead.

“It’s a part of Wisconsin’s identity and I don’t want to disturb that,” he said.

“What happens at the end of 25 years?” Ald. Cory Nagel asked. “Is that the lifespan of the panels?”

“Our lease options will give us the opportunity to extend out to 40 years based on the satisfaction of both parties,” Brown said. “The panels have a 25-year performance guarantee. When we finance our projects, we put a replacement reserve in so we can repower the program.”

Brown noted that five years ago, individual solar panels provided 250 to 300 watts of electricity. Now, they produce 540 watts.

“There might be (future) solar panels that are 900 watts, which means we would be able to generate more electricity out of the same racking systems,” Brown said.

Brown said he would send a copy of its proposed option agreement to the city attorney for review.

The council took no action on the proposal at its June 20 meeting.

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