Tag Archives: Rural

Bob Bishop is a 61-year-old farmer living in dairy country in southwestern Wisconsin. Today he is helping his two sons pull a downed tree off of a fence line, stepping through piles of cow manure and corn stalks as he drags the branches into the big claw of a skid loader.

Soon, the family will stop raising dairy cows because the industry is in trouble. In 2018, Wisconsin lost 638 dairy farms because of falling milk prices. And the Bishops, who farm in Iowa County, still carry debt from when hog prices tanked in the 1990s.

Yet a rare opportunity has come the Bishops’ way. For at least a generation, the family would receive double or more the market rental rate on about 650 acres to be used for a giant solar power project. The Badger Hollow Solar Farm would be the largest such project in the Midwest.

“This was a good answer for the lagging ag economy … This provides us an excellent looking future, a very bright future we’ll say,” Bishop said.

His son Andrew Bishop, 29, wants to raise a family here and have something to pass along. Renting out about one-third of their land for the project, most of it now used to grow corn and soybeans, will help the farm stay in business, Andrew Bishop said.

“I’d like my kids to take over running my farm someday,” he said. “I have to have the financial future in front of them to make it viable.”

Invenergy’s Badger Hollow Solar Farm is one of the largest solar utility projects planned for cropland anywhere in the country. Most large-scale solar arrays have been built in the desert Southwest, where both land and sun are plentiful.

In Wisconsin, the 300-megawatt project, which the company says could power about 77,000 homes, is envisioned for 3,500 acres of prime agricultural land. It is dividing the area’s farming community, pitting neighbor against neighbor in the county of about 24,000 people. The Bishops are among several local farmers who plan to lease a checkerboard of parcels between Cobb and Montfort to Invenergy.

Some residents who vocally oppose the project generally support renewable energy; some of them even have their own solar panels generating power for their rural homes. But because of the size of the project — nearly 5.5 square miles — they fear the area will become a “solar wasteland.”

Invenergy is based in Illinois and has 135 wind, solar and natural gas projects around the United States, Europe, South America and Canada, with proposals to build elsewhere.

Badger Hollow is slated for completion in 2023, pending approval by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. It plans to use 2,200 acres of the site for up to 1.2 million solar panels.

The company was attracted to Iowa County because of the availability of flat, cleared lands, nearby transmission lines, low environmental risk and community support.

“This is an opportunity to generate electricity locally, generate jobs locally, tax revenue locally, and support local farmers,” said Invenergy’s renewable energy manager, Dan Litchfield, adding the project could bring $1.1 million in annual tax revenue to the county.

And the project would help Wisconsin — which is heavily reliant on coal and behind most states in solar power generation — to shift to cleaner energy.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas & Electric plan to purchase interests equivalent to half of the plant’s generating capacity. Public utilities cannot easily build such a project themselves. State law requires them to show a need for such development, whereas private companies are not obligated to meet this standard.

As the sun sets over recently harvested fields, Litchfield walks near a sample of the native grasses that would be used as ground cover. The plants would help replenish soils and provide habitat for birds and insects such as bees, around the solar panels.

The panels will face east in the morning and tilt throughout the day to catch the most sun. They will transfer power to machines called inverters. Underground power collection lines will carry the energy to an overhead line, which will send it to the power grid.

Litchfield points to a property on the horizon, about 4 miles from the Badger Hollow project office, where he hopes to place rows of dark glossy solar panels, 15-feet tall, in a spot where rows of corn and soybeans normally stand.

Litchfield said the project will be visually unobtrusive, and the farm’s inverters would make only a low humming noise.

“As far as energy generation technologies go, I think it’s as low impact as it gets,” he said. “We’re not burning anything, we’re not stockpiling ash, we don’t create odors.”

Alan Jewell and Richard Jinkins sit at a round table drinking tea in Jewell’s living room. Exposed stone lines the interior walls of his roughly 160-year-old farmhouse.

Both men are farmers who trace their heritage in this area back generations. Jinkins said his family purchased farmland before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and his son hopes to become a fifth-generation farmer.

Jewell and Jinkins both have family land next to acres leased for the solar project. They have joined the formal process at the Public Service Commission to intervene in the Badger Hollow case.

They love this countryside for its scenic beauty and feel the solar project would change that.

“This is an ugly, ugly mark on the land,” Jewell said. “Why am I having to have this thrust upon me?”

They say too much high-quality farmland needed for food production would be tied up in energy generation, and they fear more of their neighbors will move away because of the project’s unsightliness.

To Jinkins, utility-scale solar is a threat to Wisconsin’s farming legacy.

“If I want to rent land, if my son wants to farm, there’s just so much farm near our property, right? It doesn’t turn over that often. It doesn’t come up for sale,” Jinkins said.

Jewell said he is for renewable energy, but he thinks it should happen on an individual scale. People like him, who are not a part of the project, will live with the downsides but no benefit, he said. Jewell and Jinkins are also among residents critical of the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line planned to run near the solar project.

Wisconsin has no siting rules specific to solar projects. And Jewell said the proposed local restrictions for the project are inadequate. An operating contract with Iowa County requires 50 feet between the project and property lines of non-participating owners or any public road. It also requires a 100-foot setback from any dwelling of a non-participating property owner.

Jewell’s attorney, Carol Overland, requested the Public Service Commission create solar siting rules that would include a required environmental review of large solar projects. After opting to conduct an initial environmental assessment, commission staff concluded that there would be a low probability of harm.

“The proposed project is not expected to significantly affect historic resources, scenic or recreational resources, threatened or endangered species, or ecologically important areas,” the assessment found.

Tom Content, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, noted that MG&E and WPS also plan to buy a 1,300-acre solar project at Two Creeks in Manitowoc County.

Content said the commission should conduct a “more holistic and thorough review” of whether these projects are needed — and how much ratepayers should be required to pay for them. The utilities say acquisition of this solar capacity would lower rates. An expert for CUB, which intervenes in utility cases to protect ratepayers, says it is possible the cost of electricity could go up.

“We’ve had a concern that utility profits in Wisconsin have been too high for a long time,” he said, noting that Wisconsin has the 13th highest electric rates in the country. “Any time you build something, rates go up.”

Jewell said he also wants more oversight, someone to further weigh the trade-offs of such an unprecedented use of agricultural land for a solar utility.

“To an accountant, it’s dirt,” Jewell said. “To somebody that works with land and feels it’s a partnership … it’s not an element to buy or sell, it’s an element to respect.”

Michael Vickerman, policy director of the nonprofit Renew Wisconsin, which promotes renewable energy, said solar power has been slow to catch on here.

He hopes 2019 will be a “breakout” year for solar. In the unlikely scenario that all 15 of Wisconsin’s proposed solar projects are approved, along with several proposed wind projects, renewable energy would provide about 20 percent of the state’s power by 2025, Vickerman says.

As of October, renewable energy, including hydroelectric, provided about 8 percent of the state’s utility-scale electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal-fired plants produced 51 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity, followed by natural gas at 29 percent, nuclear power at 11 percent, and other sources.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Wisconsin ranks 40th nationwide in the generation of solar energy. Currently, the state has about 100 megawatts of solar power generation. The proposed Badger Hollow project would provide three times that amount.

Solar power has finally become a low-cost option for replacing fossil fuels, Vickerman said; that is why large utilities are now investing in it.

“Solar is homegrown. Solar is clean. Solar is dependable, and solar is economic,” Vickerman said. “When you add all those characteristics together, you have a pretty compelling argument for expanding our use of solar.”

The Public Service Commission has scheduled March 6 oral arguments on whether the utilities should be allowed to purchase the extra solar capacity by investing $389.7 million in Badger Hollow and Two Creeks.

Said Vickerman: “We embrace solar from a large installation in rural Wisconsin to rooftop solar, whether it’s a big box store or somebody’s house — we think it’s all good.”

Recent articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post discuss preferences for rural living and if rural economies can be saved. Data from the Nebraska Rural Poll and other state surveys are used to further explore these topics.

Residential Preferences

The Washington Post piece by Christopher Ingraham examined recent Gallup Poll data that showed many Americans would like to live in a rural area. If so many people would like to live in rural areas, why is population in nonmetropolitan areas declining? Preferences and reality don’t match for many Americans. While 27 percent of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area if they could live anywhere they wish, only 15 percent currently live in such a place. Ingraham and Gallup’s Frank Newport state that job concentration in metro areas is preventing the movement to rural areas.

Ingraham goes on to present arguments for living in rural areas. Many positives are found in rural life, such as higher levels of happiness and well-being, better natural environments, safe neighborhoods, and affordable cost of living.

A survey of new residents to the Nebraska Panhandle conducted in 2007 also sheds light on reasons people choose to live in rural areas. In fact, the type of places the new residents moved from was related to their reasons both for moving from their previous location as well as their reasons for moving to their new home (Cantrell et al., 2008). Migrants originating from metropolitan areas were significantly more likely than their non-metropolitan counterparts to identify high cost of living, fear of crime and general safety concerns as push factors that were important or very important in their decision to move from their previous residence. Similarly, the new residents originating from metropolitan areas were significantly more likely than their non-metropolitan counterparts to indicate that seeking a less congested location was an important pull consideration in selecting a Panhandle location. Indeed, this was reported as an important consideration by 65 percent of those moving to the Panhandle from a metropolitan location. They were also significantly more likely to identify the pull of lower cost housing, a simpler pace of life, a safer living environment, lower taxes, shared values and an improved environment for child-rearing than were their non-metropolitan counterparts.

Nebraska Rural Poll data from 1998 also examined residential preferences similar to those explored by Gallup. That data found the opposite trend from that found nationally. For rural Nebraskans, the proportion currently living in the country was greater than the proportion preferring to do so. Fifty-one percent of the respondents lived in the country, compared to only 34 percent who would prefer this residence type. Overall, rural Nebraskans who don’t currently live in their preferred community size tended to prefer communities larger than their current location. However, it is important to note that within these general preferences there was a marked tendency for rural residents in smaller towns to prefer smaller rural towns, for those living in larger rural towns to prefer larger towns, etc. The least preferred community size was a large city. Only one percent of rural Nebraskans would prefer to live in a place with a population in excess of 500,000.

Economic Realities

These differences in residential preferences lead to the economic disparities between urban and rural areas discussed more in the New York Times piece by Eduardo Porter. Porter examines the “Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” presenting evidence of economic decline in rural America. Some of the evidence provided includes economic recovery occurring in metropolitan areas that is not occurring overall in rural economies:  by 2017,  the largest metropolitan areas had almost 10 percent more jobs than they did at the start of the financial crisis while rural areas still had fewer.

The rural Nebraskans who expressed a preference for living in larger communities than their current location may indicate a desire for increased economic opportunities that are presumed to be greater in larger places. Further evidence of the struggle between preference for small town living and economic realities are shown in Nebraska Rural Polldata. Consistently, the Rural Poll has found that rural Nebraskans are most satisfied with various social and environmental dimensions including their marriage, family, friends, the outdoors, their safety and general quality of life. They are less satisfied with economic factors such as job opportunities, current income level, and their ability to build assets/wealth and financial security during retirement.

Looking closer at the makeup of their household incomes can help better understand this financial dissatisfaction. Rural Poll data from 2014 revealed many rural Nebraskans piece together their incomes from self-employment and multiple job holding. Just over four in ten employed rural Nebraska households (42%) have multiple job holding by members of the household. And, multiple job holding was more prevalent for residents of smaller communities. Similarly, self-employment activity was also more likely in smaller communities. Over one-half (58%) of employed households living in or near communities with less than 500 persons have at least one person who is self-employed, compared to 31 percent of households living in or near communities with populations of 10,000 or more. These employment patterns show why Nebraska has historically had low levels of unemployment.

The health of the rural economy is important to Nebraska overall. In an economic overview by the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, they highlight that nonmetropolitan areas in Nebraska accounted for nearly 30 percent of the state’s GDP in 2016. Nationwide, nonmetropolitan areas account for about 10 percent of total economic output.

Utilizing broadband technology is argued to be promising to enhance economic opportunities in rural areas. Robert Gallardo responded to the New York Times article by arguing that disparities in connectivity between rural and urban areas have not yet allowed this to occur. He argues that investment in broadband connectivity and digital skills can help encourage a rural rebound.

A recent study of digital readiness among Nebraska households using the Internet revealed a device and internet access divide between metropolitan and rural Nebraska households. However, despite this divide, rural Nebraska households’ utilization of the internet compared evenly or more favorably to that of metropolitan households. And, they rely more heavily on using smartphones, mobile data and libraries for their internet access. Overall, Nebraskans have much room to improve their impacts and benefits from the Internet. Only about one-quarter of households earned money online by selling, freelancing or renting.

While economic realities in rural areas can be challenging, many opportunities exist. Improving digital readiness and connectivity in rural areas has the potential to increase residents’ benefits and impacts from Internet use. And, with the state’s low unemployment rate, many unfilled job opportunities are available. Since many Americans express a preference for rural living, community quality of life amenities can be the factors that ultimately lead persons to choose to move to rural areas. If economic opportunities can be improved, this would pave the way to more people choosing to do so.