The sun is shining on a new way to power Fitchburg and the surrounding communities.
With wide expanses of relatively flat farmland – unusual for a city – it has one of the necessary attributes for solar developers to consider farming for energy on the land.
The rest of Fitchburg has turned toward solar and other forms of clean energy at a rapid pace within the past decade. The city leads in this regard, with solar panel arrays installed on five of the city’s buildings and a sixth is planned to top the east side fire station when it opens next year.
However, private residents and businesses have doubled their total number of solar arrays in the city since Jan. 1, 2016, with 24 home installations and at least five on businesses or private organizations, Madison Gas and Electric representatives told the Star.
Ald. Tony Hartmann (Dist. 4) said the city has “hundreds of acres” available where solar farms could be constructed.
Hartmann, a member of Fitchburg’s Resource Conservation Commission said the trick is to put the rural solar farming zones close enough to a larger population where a substation is already built. That way it can be converted into usable energy.
“The bottom line is, anything down here, and the closest to the (energy company’s) substations, are the best fields because you don’t have to run the lines very far,” he said, pointing to a map of Fitchburg in a conference room in City Hall during an interview in July.
Solar farming often occurs in such a way that farmers aren’t completely giving up their properties through leases to developers.
Often, farmers are still able to grow their crops below the solar panels. They are mounted on I-beams throughout a field in the air, rather than to the ground, Hartmann explained.
Wade Thompson, a project planner for the city’s zoning department and a member of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, told the Star the idea of placing solar farms on top of cash crops can be intriguing for farmers.
The ability to create additional revenue could keep farmers on their land, despite changes in the agriculture industry squeezing out local operators in favor of factory farms, tariffs on crop exports and unpredictable weather patterns.
“Ideally, from the committee’s perspective, that would be a win-win in retaining land for ag production, but also for creating developments that serves sustainable energy purposes,” Thompson added.
Government would not directly manage any solar development in the southern part of the city, Hartmann said, but still requires officials to make smart planning decisions on future land use maps and approving rezone requests to allow for solar farms.
“What we would like to do is we would like to supply clean kilowatts for the whole of Dane County,” he said. “We would like to be, because we have this farmland and our farmers are interested in renting it, why not put a solar farm?
“(Farmers are) all in, because they can make more money,” he added.