In Part II of our series on agrivoltaics, we discuss the UW-Madison Kegonsa Research Campus solar project. This project is a collaboration between UW-Madison and Alliant Energy to develop a small-scale solar and agrivoltaics project for research and education purposes on the university-owned Kegonsa Research Campus in Stoughton, WI, just south of the main campus. Joining us are Josh Arnold, Campus Energy Advisor with the UW Office of Sustainability, and Amanda Thomas, Engineer and Project Manager at Alliant Energy.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Josh Arnold 0:10
How might we create a solar project not only to make progress towards clean energy goals but also to create a living learning laboratory for researchers, students to come and visit and really be able to experience clean energy firsthand?
Steffen Mirsky 0:50
Welcome to part two of our series on agrivoltaics, where Will and I dive into the UW Madison Kegonsa agrivoltaics project, as we talk with representatives from UW and Alliant Energy about their partnership on the project, and some of their goals and how they plan to achieve them. I hope you enjoy.
Josh Arnold 1:12
Hi, my name is Josh Arnold. I’m the Campus Energy Advisor at the UW Madison Office of Sustainability and the project manager on the UW side for the Kegonsa Research Campus pilot project.
Steffen Mirsky 1:27
Great. Thanks, Josh. And Amanda, thanks for joining us. Could you introduce yourself?
Amanda Thomas 1:31
Yes. Hi Amanda Thomas. I am an engineer with Alliant Energy and filling the role as Alliant Energy’s Project Manager for the UW Kegonsa pilot project through our customer hosted renewables program.
Steffen Mirsky 1:46
Great. So before we dive into the Kegonsa project, could you both you just talk about from Alliant’s perspective, and UW’s perspective, what are your renewable energy targets and goals?
Josh Arnold 2:01
Well, from the UW side, our students, staff and faculty have been pushing for, or 100% renewable energy goals for some time. And in response to that type of leadership, the university and the Office of Sustainability started to think about how might we develop a clean energy portfolio with the Wisconsin Idea top of mind. And what that means is looking at how might we create a solar project not only to make progress towards clean energy goals, but also to create a living learning laboratory for, for researchers, for students to come and visit and really be able to experience clean energy firsthand. And by doing so, the idea would be to get our institution closer to our clean energy goals, while also bringing our students and faculty and staff closer to clean energy. And so as we were looking around and exploring different opportunities to develop a clean energy portfolio, we learned about the Alliant Energy customer hosted solar program. And in exploring that program further, we had initial conversations with Alliant Energy, about how that program might work, and how it might help the Office of Sustainability, propose ideas to campus leadership to get started making progress towards some of our clean energy goals. We determined that the customer hosted solar program would be a suitable program for the Office of Sustainability working with different campus energy campus partners to to explore and that’s when we got in touch with Alliant Energy to explore how we might be able to implement a project at the Kegonsa research campus.
Steffen Mirsky 4:22
Great. Amanda, could you speak to Alliant’s renewable energy goals and why Alliant was interested in partnering with UW on this project?
Amanda Thomas 4:33
Yes, thank you. Alliant Energy, announced our clean energy blueprint which was our guidance for how we are going to move forward in our service territories both in Iowa and Wisconsin to grow a more clean and renewable infrastructure for our communities and our customers. That was set to have a goal of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and the elimination of coal by 2040. As Josh alluded to a little bit, we also understood the opportunities and the needs from our customers to help them reach their renewable, and sustainability goals as well. And that was kind of the construct that develops the customer hosted renewables program that this project is going to be a part of. So it was a very innovative, unique idea for Alliant Energy to kind of meet our customers where they’re at, in trying to jointly meet our sustainable and renewable goals for a cleaner community.
Will Fulwider 5:37
So beyond the renewable energy goals, sustainability goals, why agrivoltaics? Why agriculture under solar panels? I mean, you could have the solar panels there already, you know, and it wouldn’t have to have agriculture there. So why this specific project focusing on agrivoltaics?
Josh Arnold 6:02
From the from the UW side, when we were thinking about building out this clean energy portfolio, we were taking a look around the state of Wisconsin, and we’re noticing that so many solar projects are coming online in Wisconsin, and it’s really impacting the landscape of Wisconsin, you know, since 2018, some of the large solar projects that have been coming online, and where we were thinking about how might we, as UW Madison, try to help inform the conversation about this clean energy transition. And so what we’re thinking about is the opportunity to put agrivoltaics together to put agricultural research and activity together with solar might help them and might help create a demonstration opportunity for the larger community and the state about how solar and agriculture could fit together. And essentially, what we’re hoping to do with our very small project is really just to help inform the conversation about how there could be a win-win opportunity, with combining solar and agriculture together, that might help build a bridge between Wisconsin’s agricultural traditions, and its clean energy future.
Will Fulwider 7:37
What about Alliant’s tact on this? Why, Amanda, why were you all interested in in agriculture in a utility company? So ag isn’t quite within your purview, but it’s definitely something you’re in this partnership now, and so must have been of some interest for sure.
Amanda Thomas 7:55
Yeah, absolutely. I think we talk about our energy infrastructure transition, I think Josh did a wonderful job explaining kind of that transition of the landscape, especially here in the state of Wisconsin, know that Alliant Energy has always tried to be on the forefront of your renewable energy technology as relates to solar and wind and trying to have the most cost effective energy infrastructure for our customers. And when we talk about solar and wind, obviously, land is a large component of that and understanding that we have a very large amount of agricultural land available to us within the state of Wisconsin and Iowa for those purposes. Further, understanding that discussion and those opportunities to co-locate and really be a steward for our communities that we live in and work in and participate in every day is super critical for Alliant Energy as it relates to our values, and goals as a company. So that’s really some of the big drivers as we look at this and how we can continue to be a strong steward to our communities and understand that agricultural land is a big component of that, and finding opportunities to partner with universities and landowners and other stakeholders in areas like this are critical for our energy future.
Steffen Mirsky 9:25
Great, well, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of the project a little bit and talk about you know, the size of the project, how much energy will be produced and some of those details. Josh, can you kind of give an overview on what the project looks like?
Josh Arnold 9:43
Absolutely. So the project will be located at UW’s Kegonsa research campus, and the Kegonsa research campus is a total of about 280 acres, located in Dunn Township up in Dane County, near Stoughton, Wisconsin. The the location of this project was selected for several reasons. First, it’s right by the UW physical sciences lab. And that location is has a history of innovation related to energy and physics. And so there will be some interactions between the physical sciences lab and this project that we’re really excited about. The project will be located only on about 15 acres of the much larger 300 acre Kegonsa research campus. So we’re just carving out a very small piece of this much larger location. And the remaining acreage at that site will continue to be farmed, as before. What we’re really excited about with this specific location and about the project itself is that we had, we were able to bring together all of the key stakeholders to really make this project a success. We had the electricity provider, in this case, Alliant Energy, we had the physical sciences lab that was very interested in this project. The group that is currently farming the location, Christiana Farms, is a willing and cooperative partner for this project. And of course, we had lots of groups on campus who are very interested in research, education and demonstration for the project. So on the 15 acres of the project, how it will work is we’ll have a small south facing slope for the solar array, and the solar array itself will be 2.25 megawatts. And that is enough to power about 450 homes or so. And on that array, we will be conducting all kinds of research, demonstration and educational activities. But I’d like to share just a little bit about more about why the location was selected. Because it is really an important piece of the whole project. First of all, the location is close enough to campus where it made sense for researchers and students to be able to get back and forth. It’s about 10 miles away from the main campus, the main UW Madison campus and the location of the array within the larger Kegonsa research campus. Because it is a south facing slope within an interior parcel of the campus. It will, it’s perfectly well suited for solar because it is a south facing slope. And the interior location of the solar array will help shield views from the rustic roads that are nearby. And the intention there was to work with the local township, town of Dunn, to make sure that the project fit within the character of the area. Another piece of the project that we’re really excited about has to do with how UW Madison will be retiring the renewable energy credits attached to the project. So the renewable energy credits will be retired by UW Madison. And those will go towards meeting the institution’s clean energy goals in the future.
Will Fulwider 14:26
Amanda, do you want to follow up on anything about like kind of the current status of the project? What is it look like hooking up to the grid? How important is that and the placement of it? And then about the kind of lifetime of the project?
Amanda Thomas 14:43
Yeah, absolutely. So thank you, Josh, for talking about all the work that went into selecting the UW Kegonsa site for this particular project. So one thing that’s important to note as well as relates to our customer hosted renewables program is that in these projects, sites are tied into our distribution system. So they’re not at transmission level, unlike you might see on a utility scale type of project. So why that’s important is that means that that power is going straight into that local distribution system in being able to use by the local community, right where it’s cited. So that’s something that’s very, you know, unique and great and exciting about the customer hosted and the use of our distributed generation system. So that’s why on the siding of this project, becomes crucial. So that we’re close to our distribution system and able to tie in cost effectively, where we’re kind of at currently on our timeline, so we’re working with one of our solar developers Sunvest, specifically out of Pewaukee, Wisconsin on this particular project. We’re still in the middle of finalizing a lot of our design and permitting for the project and really hope that we can continue to move forward strongly with community support, that we’re able to begin construction later on this year, and then hopefully be an operational late into the following year.
Will Fulwider 16:18
Great. And let’s kind of go down to the solar level, I guess, of the field, talking about kind of the panels you know, what, what considerations were made into selecting spacing, or the types of panels that are going to be on the site, or what have you?
Amanda Thomas 16:37
Yeah, I think that is, again, one of the exciting opportunities with not only our customer hosted portfolio, but also with this partnership, I’m specific, quickly targeting agrivoltaics. So we’d be utilizing, generally speaking, or for one who’s I say energy nerds like myself, or of using 650 Watt bifacial panels across the entire 2.25 megawatt AC array. Ultimately, what that means is that we’re able to capture sunlight and generate electricity from both the front facing and rear facing side of these panels. We’re doing research on that. And it’s essentially the direction that most all solar panel manufacturers are heading in the current market to help increase efficiencies on a land to production perspective, something that’s off farm or unique about the UW Kegonsa site. Josh kind of touched on this a little bit, as we talked about our treatments is that we currently have design plans to have three different types of kind of array setups or your treatment setups as relates to the racking on this particular project site, which is you know fairly unique compared to a lot of other projects that you’ll see across Wisconsin, and the country as a whole. So we will be utilizing some sections at some elevated panels for great demonstration and teaching and educational aspects, we will be implementing some single axis trackers. So that’s a system that you’ll see where you have the panels located on a torque two axis that follows the sun. So having a greater duration of collection, solar energy throughout the day. And then as well as we’re going to then have a fairly large section of what we consider a standard ground mounted off fixed tilt solar array, which is very typical with what you would see in a lot of other small scale sites. And another great opportunity to really harness some of the abilities with the slopes and soil qualities to look at more research opportunities in those areas that can be replicated in future projects.
Steffen Mirsky 19:10
Just to follow up on that, Amanda, so the three treatments, are there going to be divided equally. So is it going to be basically five acres of each, or is it going to be disproportional?
Amanda Thomas 19:25
Correct. So we’ll be disproportional. So our current design plans has about 50 kilowatts of elevated racking which just means raising up the array on call it stilts of sorts, being able to have more opportunity for potential research and growth of things that require a little different ratio as it relates to land space on the panels. And we have about 100 or 200 kW of single axis tracking solar arrays, again, the energy density, there’s a little different skill set, that’s a slightly larger proportion of the site that will include on that type of treatment. But then the vast majority of the array is going to be that standard fixed tilt ground mount of about 2000 kilowatts of solar generation in that particular area of sight. So not equally distributed. But breaking out so we can have really tangible numbers as it relates to production of whether or not its crops or soil health and things like that, as relates to then the different styles of solar generation from a racking perspective that you can see at various facilities.
Will Fulwider 20:58
And so Amanda, you know, as we think about the fact that there’s going to be agriculture, or agricultural research being done on these panels, did Alliant try and look to different examples of this currently happening? Or, you know, think about what are the, you know, trade offs of having agriculture being conducted under the panel’s versus kind of your baseline scenario, what you would normally doing be doing for vegetation management? And, you know, how does this factor into kind of where you see the, the future of your solo trades going?
Amanda Thomas 21:34
Yeah, absolutely. So this has been a wonderful area of process, one of the, I would say, interesting things that we’re seeing kind of develop, even right now in the solar energy space is understanding how a array like this contributes to ground and stormwater conditions across the country. And in these areas, we’re replacing these solar arrays, and we’re actually already seeing how that’s kind of driving a lot into our design, especially as it relates to row spacing and needs for stormwater needs, and uses at various facilities. So I think it’s really interesting to have this lens of agriculture, because a lot of some of the considerations that we’re receiving for researchers, you know, ultimately, then also help us kind of better navigate how we can build and design better solar arrays, you know, in the future that really taking into account a lot of these, you know, positive benefits that we see with solar infrastructure, that we wouldn’t necessarily have the data to back on some of our other projects as it relates to a potential design consideration. So it’s been a really great opportunity to learn and have kind of that data and analysis to kind of tie into some of the aspects that we can integrate into our solar installations.
Will Fulwider 23:05
Great. And, Josh, now that we’re kind of talking about a little bit about the agricultural aspect of it, what’s the research that’s going to be happening there? You know, how is agriculture going to be integrated into this site?
Josh Arnold 23:18
Yeah, so that, you know, the, with the objectives of the project, we’re looking to accomplish a few different things related to research. And I’ll also expand it to include demonstration, and education and outreach. So because this is a project of UW Madison, and with the Office of Sustainability in the project management role, we are looking to work with our campus partners to establish a living laboratory at the location. And what we’re really excited about is the the response that we’ve received from, from students, from staff and faculty about their interest in taking researchable questions, and using this location as an observatory where they can experiment and explore some of those questions. So what are the questions? First, there’s a bucket of questions around what are the the biophysical interactions between solar panels and racking and a solar array and the natural environment in which those are located? So that would be looking at different questions related to atmospheric sciences related to groundwater or hydrology related to looking at interactions between wildlife and pollinator yours and solar panels. So that’s sort of one area of question around there. Another area has to do specifically with looking at soils. And what is the impact of soils in regards to having a solar array at the location with this location, because it has been farmed for so many years. One of the things that we’ve been working on is getting baseline information at the location, so that we can measure and monitor the the soil quality and composition over the lifetime of the solar project. The other questions that are out there have to do with business models and innovation. How might agricultural producers or farmers be able to grow electrons in addition to growing crops? Or are or harvesting or working with animals? How might they grow electrons in addition to growing crops, and the idea there is how might they benefit from different types of diversified revenue streams to help their operations. And then the last area that we’re exploring at this time, has to do with looking at best practices related to policy. And that might be land use policy, that might be interactions related to communicating with neighbors and communicating with communities about solar projects, and looking at policies at the local level, at the state level, or even the federal level.
Steffen Mirsky 27:03
So Amanda, as we look towards the future, and assuming we can expect a lot more of these solar farms with agrivoltaics happening underneath them, how does this affect kind of the terms and conditions of the lease? And also like, what criteria are you looking for, in in a site to to put one of these solar projects.
Amanda Thomas 27:31
So currently, if you go to our Alliant Energy website, we are actively requesting information and surveys from potential landowners who might be interested in partnering with us on a project. We’re predominantly looking for landowners to give us some information about some of the land that they own. And we’ll be looking for some constructability type questions and things like that. And then we can further evaluate that information and see if they might be a good option for us moving forward. We are actually speaking with many customers who are interested in the opportunity to partner with us and reaching their renewable and sustainability goals. All of those discussions with those customers in those projects are very product specific as relates to a lot of those terms and how we work through those logistics with them. So it’s a it’s a very collaborative opportunity that we’re having with a lot of landowners and excited to continue to see how that grows and flourishes in our creatures as we grow our energy portfolio.
Will Fulwider 28:41
I’m a landowner, let’s say, and I have this customer hosted solar on my land, kind of like the UW has, and it’s already installed. Is there any way to go about, let’s say, farming under this panels, if that’s an Alliant Energy site? Is there a protocol for that? Or is this just brand new? Well, we’re not quite there yet.
Amanda Thomas 29:01
Well, I think you’re spot on right there when we say we’re not quite there yet. And I think when we talk about this project in Wisconsin, and certainly similar projects that we have, in our Iowa service territory, that will also include agrivoltaics, as a partnership with Iowa State University. That’s exactly some of the goals and mindsets that Alliant Energy has as a utility, going into projects like this learning and growing and understanding how we can have this stronger relationship with our landowners that we’re utilizing, uh, for the generation of our electricity in our portfolio. So like that’s a spot on question. It’s something that we’re really interested in seeing how we’re able to, you know, continue to foster these partnerships and have a stronger bond with a lot of these landowners as relates to other feature on these projects.
Steffen Mirsky 29:54
So I also wanted to ask about stakeholder input into terms of, you know, information that has informed this project and the directions that it’s going to be going. Just curious, like, who, who has given input into this project so far?
Josh Arnold 30:12
Yeah. So with this project, we started early on in the project, reaching out to local government to learn more about their questions and concerns about proposing a solar project at the cadenza research campus. So, from the very earliest stage of the project, we had initial conversations with Dunn Township, as well as county of Dane, and working with both of those entities has been extremely valuable from the UW side, because we’ve learned a lot about what their goals are, what their concerns might be, and how we can design an integrated design process into this project to be able to help account for, for their questions and concerns. Another another activity that we implemented, before we even started to design this this project was we conducted an environmental impact assessment for the site. And as part of that environmental impact assessment, we, we had several public meetings that were conducted online, and provided an opportunity to hear from neighbors and from the community about about their questions and concerns about the project. So from the very earliest points of the project, we, you know, the goals had to do with hearing about questions, hearing about concerns, and how we, from the project team perspective, could could plan a project that could try to address as many as many stakeholders as possible.
Will Fulwider 32:11
Great. Well, is there anything else that you want to add that we didn’t already cover?
Josh Arnold 32:17
I think one thing that we on the project side are very excited about is how this project can be a demonstration. For people who are interested, you know, maybe they haven’t seen solar panels, maybe they haven’t seen them on agricultural land. And in addition to being able to be that demonstration project, we’re also very interested in inviting people in not only to tour the site when it’s up and ready, but also if they have a products or, or technologies that they might be interested in, in working together with us to demonstrate at the location. One of the goals of the project is to showcase innovation when it comes to agricultural production, and how might we showcase technologies that might be up and coming at this specific location. So think about, you know, all electric equipment, or other types of farm of the future style, technologies or equipment. So we would really welcome anyone who’s involved with those types of products or operations to get in touch in and we can talk more about how we might be able to work together to showcase technologies related to those topics.
Steffen Mirsky 33:54
Thanks so much to Josh and Amanda, who had to drop off a little early for joining us today. We hope you’ll tune in to part three of our series on agrivoltaics, where we get into some of the fascinating research on the nuts and bolts of farming under solar panels.
JASON FISCHBACH 34:13
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