Large-scale solar can help protect the special places we call home

Young girl holding a sunflower stands in front of solar panel

It is a great privilege to raise my family on our farm in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. My daughter chases after Monarchs and eats corn picked fresh in the field. She delights in recognizing a handful of familiar birds by their calls and many more by sight. This spring she spied a new bird; mixed in with the usual white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees, the killdeer and great blue herons, was a Carolina wren. Historically its range has tended further south, but as temperatures continue to rise, we’re going to see more and more changes to our wildlife, environment, health, and livelihoods here in Southern Wisconsin – many far more ominous than the arrival of a small brown bird. And those changes are coming quickly.

The urgency of the climate crisis means that we need all hands on deck implementing all kinds of climate solutions. There’s no silver bullet; we need silver buckshot. That means we need a shift to electric vehicles and better public transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure. We need energy efficiency and carbon-free electricity. And we need both smaller-scale, rooftop solar and large, utility-scale solar. Every kilowatt of clean energy adds up to make a difference, but given the urgency of climate change, a 465-megawatt project like the proposed Koshkonong Solar Energy Center would be a big step in matching the scale of the crisis with the scale of solutions.

Koshkonong’s 300-megawatt solar array, paired with 165-megawatts of battery storage, would produce enough clean and reliable electricity to power at least 60,000 homes. At the same time, the project would provide supplemental income to landowners through lease agreements. Any farmer can tell you it’s not an easy profession, and many families are struggling to hold on to their farms as consolidation and volatile commodity prices push them away. More extreme heat and flooding events expected under climate change are only adding to the already numerous challenges of farming. Producing homegrown energy and diversifying farmers’ income streams can help keep families on their farms, maintaining the character of Wisconsin’s bucolic landscapes for generations to come.

Though it can feel invasive at first, we’ve become accustomed to infrastructure that makes our modern lives possible: the roads that dissect the natural landscape; the power lines that bring electricity to our homes; the cell phone towers that keep us connected with loved ones and business partners; even the satellites that streak across our dark, rural, night sky that bring some of us tv and critical high-speed internet. These are all examples of times when we’ve weighed the pros and cons of altering the landscape and views in this special place and decided that the benefits exceed the downsides. This must happen for solar farms too.

Our current energy system is failing us all, and some of us more than others. While electricity often feels invisible, powering our lives with the flick of a switch, the pollution involved in creating that convenience is harming many Wisconsinites. Communities living near coal-fired power plants face higher risks of asthma, heart attacks, and cancer. And there are alarming inequities built into this system. Studies show that lower income communities and people of color – Black people especially – are exposed to disproportionately high levels of fossil fuel pollution. Just as we all benefit from the convenience of electricity, we all shoulder some responsibility for the harm producing that energy can cause. While renewable energy infrastructure has some downsides, they are not on par with the havoc the fossil fuel industry is wreaking on people’s health, the environment, and wildlife. If we’re serious about addressing climate change and the environmental inequities we see today, a rapid transition to renewable energy is essential. If we do this right, we can work together to build a better future for our children, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin.

When we make these difficult energy decisions, if we look just at the impacts of installing new renewable infrastructure versus doing nothing, we’re not really looking at the full picture. We need to consider what that inaction now will do to our communities in the future. Many of the activities that make our rural communities so desirable, like trout fishing and cross-country skiing, are threatened by an ever-warming climate. The very vegetation, landscapes, and natural rhythms that define Wisconsin’s rural communities are already changing and face a perilous future from unchecked climate change. And while many of us love so much of the present-day Wisconsin we know, the status quo for many pollution-burdened Wisconsinites isn’t something we want to maintain.

It’s understandable that many rural residents may be supportive of renewable energy but feel it would be better suited somewhere else. Southern Wisconsin is after all a beautiful, unique area and we need to protect this special place we call home. But, in the case of climate change, one way we protect the future of this special place is by protecting them all. Air pollution and climate change are problems that go beyond individual towns, states, or even countries. Because particles and gases quickly circulate in our atmosphere, in Wisconsin, we breathe unhealthy air from wildfires out West and we experience negative impacts from climate change that the whole world contributes to. These are interconnected problems and we all have a role to play in advancing solutions. Change is hard, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Climate change is happening whether we like it or not. The question now is, what do we do to prepare for it and lessen its future impact? Individually, we can install small-scale solar energy, like the 24 panels atop my 19th century barn. Locally, we can support responsible, larger-scale efforts to propel our state forward in the transition to renewable energy, such as the proposed Koshkonong Solar project. At the federal level, we can support investments in energy efficiency and clean energy like those proposed in the Build Back Better Act.

The Carolina wren my daughter delights in watching flit around our feeders and mix with the familiar chickadees and nuthatches is probably here to stay. But if we do not act, and act boldly, far more perilous changes await. We must come together to confront the climate crisis we face. Our children, livelihoods, and the special places we call home are counting on us.

Chelsea Chandler is Clean Wisconsin’s Climate Solutions Director. She is also an organic produce farmer in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin.