UW–Madison Extension awarded $1M to assist with siting large-scale renewable energy projects, engaging local communities in the process

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded UW–Madison Extension a grant for $1 million to support a coordinated, inclusive, and transparent process that engages communities in siting large-scale renewable energy projects across Wisconsin.

The grant is part of $22 million in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to improve planning, siting, and permitting processes for large-scale renewable energy and battery storage projects that are expanding exponentially nationwide. Six states were awarded a total of $10 million in the first round of the Renewable Energy Siting through Technical Engagement and Planning (R-STEP) program to develop and expand statewide initiatives that provide expertise, trainings, and technical resources to local governments and communities to assist them in planning for large-scale renewable energy developments.

The Wisconsin project is called Renewable Energy Siting and Engagement for Tomorrow (RESET). The project will be led by Sherrie Gruder, Extension Distinguished Sustainable Design Specialist & Energy Strategist, and Diane Mayerfeld, Extension Sustainable Agriculture Statewide Coordinator.

“R-STEP will help us move Wisconsin to successful renewable energy development where all stakeholders benefit”, said Gruder.

The grant supports a coalition of groups including Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Land & Water, UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability, Oneida Nation, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Towns Association, and Apex Clean Energy. The collaborative will develop and update solar and wind guidance and technical resources, expand education and outreach, engage rural and tribal communities to articulate their values, and create developer agreements and other tools to help shape renewable energy projects. The goal is to open opportunities for community wealth-building, local workforce development, and environmental benefits in deploying renewable energy projects in Wisconsin so that all stakeholders benefit.

Wisconsin currently has 33 large-scale solar developments (13 with battery storage) in place or under development in 21 counties. All the investor-owned utilities have adopted goals of 100 percent clean (carbon-free) energy by 2050, with interim goals of 40-80% renewable capacity or carbon emissions reduction by 2030 as they shut down Wisconsin’s remaining coal plants in the next 10 years.

Wisconsin law requires developers of renewable energy projects 50 megawatts or larger to compensate local jurisdictions and counties annually per megawatt of installed energy, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for communities. Most local governments have not publicly discussed how those funds might be spent, so residents aren’t aware that they too will reap financial benefits from renewable energy projects in addition to landowners that lease their land to developers. R-STEP will enable Extension to help communities explore ways to use the funds equitably for long-term community benefit.

Rural areas are most impacted by utility-scale renewable energy development. About 1 percent of Wisconsin’s land or roughly 340,000 acres is needed in large-scale solar to help meet Wisconsin’s 100 % clean energy goal. This is equivalent to 6 percent of Wisconsin cropland in corn and soybeans.