01STOCK_SOLARPANELS

TOWN OF DARIEN

An energy company’s plan to build a 250-megawatt solar farm in the town of Darien will be discussed Monday by a Walworth County Board committee as some debate a similar proposal from the same company in Iowa County.

Invenergy, a Chicago company, has been negotiating land leases for solar panel arrays in the town of Darien since 2017. A spokeswoman said Friday the company has secured land agreements in the town and surrounding area, but the project remains in the “really early stage.”

The Walworth County Board Land Conservation Committee will discuss a letter from a concerned resident about the company’s negotiations. The company spokeswoman said an Invenergy representative will be at the committee’s meeting.

The Walworth County negotiations come as some debate a joint proposal by Invenergy and two Wisconsin utility companies to build a 300-megawatt solar farm in Iowa County. That project, which the state’s Public Service Commission is considering, would be the largest solar farm in the Midwest.

Iowa County land owners who support that project and clean-energy advocates say the income from the land leases would be guaranteed, unlike profits from cash crops, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Some Iowa County residents have raised concerns about the sweeping proposal, which would feature 1.2 million solar panels. Critics worry the panels would render valuable farmland useless for years, hurt the area’s scenic beauty and create loud noises, the State Journal reported.

Residents in Walworth County have echoed similar concerns about the company’s plans near Darien.

Judy Gause, whose family has land in the town of Darien, wrote a letter to Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl on Jan. 22 questioning the location of the company’s land agreements.

Gause wrote that Invenergy is considering farmland that is part of the fertile Rock Prairie enrolled in the Farmland Preservation Program. Pressure is being applied to landowners to abandon the program and sign agreements with Invenergy, she wrote.

Gause worried the farmland won’t be restored after being occupied by solar panels for several decades. She wrote that placing solar panels there could tamper with cover crops and the fertile soil.

Stray voltage from the panels and electrical transmission could be dangerous for neighboring livestock, she wrote.

“Perhaps the Invenergy company could take a different approach to solar energy,” Gause wrote. “Could they help individual residents put up solar collectors that are affordable and easy to maintain with guaranteed access to the electrical grid?”

While the land conservation committee will discuss Gause’s letter Monday, the county would not have any regulatory authority over the Darien solar farms because the arrays would produce more than 99 megawatts of electricity.

Neil Palmer, a project consultant with Invenergy, said last year the state Public Service Commission and Department of Natural Resources will determine whether to issue the company permits because the arrays would generate utilities that benefit the entire state, not just the county.

Walworth County Board member Charlene Staples, who represents parts of the town of Darien, chairs the land conservation committee. She said several local landowners have contacted her and aired concerns about the proposal.

Among the concerns are invasive plants creeping into neighboring farmland while the company leases land, static electricity and the use of eminent domain if power lines need to be constructed to a substation, Staples said.

“These are legitimate questions, and I want these fears eliminated,” Staples said. “I am a supporter, absolutely, of renewable energy, and I think that Wisconsin should move forward with that. But these are legitimate concerns, and hopefully, they can be answered.

“We don’t have a whole lot of local control. We can have this meeting and talk about it and get more information, but really ... there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

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