A solar panel farm roughly twice the size of the Whistling Straits golf course is planned for the town of Holland near the Onion River.
New York-based Ranger Power will submit a proposal to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin for the 1,000- to 1,200-acre and 150-megawatt project by the end of the second quarter, company representatives say, and they anticipate the review process will take about a year.
About a dozen land owners have agreed to lease their land if the 450,000-panel project is approved.
The electricity generated by the farm will be distributed by a Wisconsin-based electric utility, and the farm will connect to an existing substation on Risseeuw Road.
The solar industry is expected to grow in the U.S. faster than any other renewable energy source until 2050. Other solar farms have popped up throughout Wisconsin, like another Ranger Power project in Jefferson County that was approved in January.
Wisconsin Public Service and Madison Gas and Electric broke ground on a 500,000-panel solar farm in August last year in Manitowoc County.
Ranger Power says the Sheboygan County solar farm will be used for about 30 to 35 years, then the panels will be removed, and the land could be used for agriculture again.
But local residents Bob and Ellie Hudovernik, whose land abuts the proposed project, have environmental concerns and take issue with how Ranger Power and the town have handled the project.
Bob said the process has been undemocratic, and the Hudoverniks wish the public could have a vote on whether to allow the project in the town.
The couple started a Facebook group called Onion River Project to stop the solar farm. They’ve accumulated over 100 members.
The Hudoverniks have dedicated themselves to researching solar farms and have a worst-case scenario in mind: damaged solar panels leaking harmful chemicals into the environment, cheap panels that won’t hold up against the weather, birds flying into panels, and lowered property values.
Both are artists and have lived on their land in the town for 35 years, enjoying and drawing inspiration from the farmland’s beauty. They worry the animals they see on their land won’t pass through if there are thousands of panels nearby.
Another landowner a couple miles from where the solar farm is planned, Oriannah Paul, said she is concerned about the solar farm’s impact on the water table. Paul has a small livestock farm and has lived in the area since 1986.
“It’s important to look at everything,” Paul said.
The area has had tornadoes, which she worries could damage the panels, releasing harmful chemicals into the ground. She also worries whether the land will be usable after the solar farm is taken apart.
Megan Hakes, a spokesperson for Ranger Power, said in an email the solar panels “are slightly larger versions of the panels used on home and commercial rooftop systems. This technology has been in commercial use for over 20 years.”
“Studies show they pose no material risk of toxicity to public health and safety,” Hakes said, referencing a study from North Carolina University that affirms the safety of solar facilities.
“Just like any physical structure, they could be damaged by natural disasters. If this were to occur, the project has every incentive to clean up and replace the modular units so that it can restore the generating capacity of the facility,” Hakes said. The panels are also designed to withstand snow, ice, high winds and storms.
The facility will also be insured and a decommissioning fund will be created as part of the state permitting process, Hakes said.
According to Ranger Power’s website on the Onion River project, the land that will be used for the solar panels makes up less than 1% of active farmland in the county.
Stan Lammers, a town board supervisor, said he signed an agreement to lease his land to Ranger Power if the project is approved. Lammers said he, like most of the others who plan to lease their land, are generational farmers, and the contracts help reduce the financial stress they face.
Lammers said he has not been participating in closed-session meetings the town has conducted to work on a joint development agreement with Ranger Power.
Town Board Chairman Don Becker said the agreement mostly addresses details of construction and decommissioning. The land won’t have to be rezoned, he said, but it will be exempt from local property taxes because it’s being used for energy production.
In lieu of the land being taxed, Onion River Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Ranger Power, will make up for that “and then some,” Becker said. The county and the township will get those funds, and the amount will be based on the capacity of solar farm.
Jeff Rauh, project representative, said Ranger Power will continue to work with the town and an open house will be held in the coming weeks. It may be held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the land identified for the solar farm, an extra 25% is included that won’t be used for solar panels — a permitting requirement in the state that allows for adjustments to be made if needed.
The panels must be at least 150 feet from any houses, Rauh said. Rows will be spaced about 16 to 20 feet apart.
If approved, construction could begin before the end of 2021, said Hakes.
Oostburg and Cedar Grove-Belgium School Districts and Lakeshore Technical College will also be compensated for any lost tax revenue, Rauh said.