PLOVER – Central Wisconsin could become home to the largest solar farm in the state and the second largest in the nation.
At 8,500 acres and 1,200 megawatts, Doral Renewables CEO Nick Cohen detailed preliminary plans for a project in southern Portage County that could power 250,000 homes in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
The project by the Pennsylvania-based company has been the subject of speculation in the southern portion of the county for months. The rumor mill picked up after a Minnesota-based solar energy company, National Grid Renewables, announced in January a 250-megawatt solar farm across 2,000 acres in the towns of Grant and Plover.
The company expects to spend up to $1billion on the project, dubbed Vista Sands Solar, according to Joe Fadness, communications consultant for Doral Renewables.
The project's exact locations are still being determined by the company but much of the project will be near the towns of Grant and Plover. The number of landowners and solar panels won't be determined until all leases have been secured.
The company is securing leases on farmland throughout the area that doesn't contribute directly to the local economy, such as providing food to local food manufacturers Del Monte Foods and McCain Foods, Cohen said. The company is avoiding forests, wetlands and protected habitats, he said.
"First and foremost, we're looking for tillable land," Cohen said. "We're trying to concentrate on farm fields that are not utilizing local production facilities."
In April, state regulators gave Dane County's Koshkonong Solar Energy Centerfinal approval for a Chicago-based developer to start construction later this year on the project. The Dane County project is expected to generate 300 megawatts of energy across about 5,000 acres.
Doral's project would dwarf the Dane County project and overtake it as the largest project in the state should it receive approval from grid operators and state regulators.
Portage and Wood counties have been the target of large-scale solar farms in recent years because of the area's central location and other factors. In Saratoga, two separate 150-megawatt solar farms are in the works for land previously designated for a large-scale dairy operation. One of those Saratoga solar projects will come online later this year and will be operated by Alliant Energy.
In April, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved six smaller solar projects totaling 414 megawatts throughout central Wisconsin.
First Mammoth Solar,
then Vista Sands
The size of Doral's project is staggering. The power generated from Vista Sands Solar could power all the households in Portage County, its five neighbors and Outagamie County, according to U.S. Census household data.
Doral is no stranger to massive green energy developments. In November, Doral announced a partnership with the state of Indiana that would see the company build the nation's largest solar farm, called Mammoth Solar. Doral's project in northeast Indiana will span 13,000 acres, generate about 1,300 megawatts of energy and represent a $1.5 billion investment.
"We've had tremendous success in Indiana," Cohen said. "The fundamentals are very similar but the reason (for that success) is that we truly take the time to listen to the community and to connect with our landowners and the community leadership. Everything we do is as thoughtful as possible. That's the core of our company's philosophy."
Vista Sands Solar would be similar in scale to that project. The difference in acreage between the two comes down to environmental factors such as forests and wetlands, Cohen said. The terrain for the Indiana project forced the company to spread out across a larger area.
The project in Plover and Grant would tentatively span about 8,500 acres — equal to about 13 square miles, larger than the nearby village of Plover — and produce almost as much energy as the Indiana project. The company expects to create about 500 construction jobs and about 50 permanent jobs through the project.
Doral's Vista Sands Solar will generate millions of dollars annually for local governments but exact figures aren't yet known. Projects above 50 megawatts become exempt from local property taxes and instead pay fees to the state. The state in turn uses a formula to provide counties and municipalities with a share of the revenue from utility companies.
The Portage County Solar project, for instance, from National Grid Renewables, could generate a combined $1 million annually for Portage County and the towns of Grant and Plover.
School districts are left out of the equation because of how schools are funded in Wisconsin, but Doral signaled it would provide voluntary support for schools should the project manifest, but it did not provide details of what that would look like.
and construction still years away
Doral's Wisconsin project is still in its infancy as it continues to secure 30-year lease agreements with property owners, largely consisting of farmers. Doral faces a lengthy approval process once it has all of its leases.
The exact figures surrounding the project's energy generation and scale could change between now and when the company files documents with regional grid operators and state regulators later this year.
In March, Doral secured the domain for vistasandssolar.com and launched a website shortly thereafter as it prepares to engage more publicly about the project.
Fadness said the project is under study by the regional electric grid operator. Fadness said the company has been in contact with the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, an unnamed local business group, state and local officials and people involved with the Buena Vista Wildlife Area and Prairie Chicken Meadow — home of multiple rare and uncommon prairie bird species.
The proximity of solar projects to the nature preserve in southern Portage County already has caught the attention of local environmentalists in recent Public Service Commission filings for the 250-megawatt Portage County Solar project.
Cohen said the company submitted the project with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator in different chunks in the event the grid operator decides to reject part of the project or that it's too large. MISO is the organization responsible for monitoring and managing the power grid for 15 U.S. states, including Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Manitoba.
Cohen said he's confident the area's electrical infrastructure can accommodate the 1,200 megawatts of solar energy his company wants to generate. He said it could be another year and a half before the grid operator issues a decision on the project.
Cohen said the company is undergoing a series of studies before it submits the project for review by the Public Service Commission. The Department of Natural Resources will also need to review the project. In Wisconsin, the Public Service Commission oversees projects generating more than 100 megawatts of energy. Projects below 100 megawatts fall under the purview of local governments for approval.
State regulators typically take a year to review and issue a decision on such projects.
Flat land, central location draw solar developers to region
Central Wisconsin is uniquely situated to accommodate such an expansive project because of its flat land, central location and existing electrical substations throughout the region, said Michael Vickerman, policy director for green energy nonprofit RENEW Wisconsin.
"It's not surprising developers have gravitated towards the center of Wisconsin," he said.
Preexisting transmission stations, which the region has several of, are also a major factor in influencing solar developments, said Heather Allen, RENEW Wisconsin's executive director.
Should Doral's project manifest as planned, however, it's unlikely to represent a shift in the scale of solar projects in Wisconsin, Vickerman said. Most projects in Wisconsin will likely focus on producing up to a few hundred megawatts, he said.
"I'm inclined to think this is a one-off," Vickerman said of Doral's project. "But if there was an area of the state that could support one or two of these projects, it would be the central area."
Contact reporter Alan Hovorka at 715-345-2252 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ajhovorka.