For years, Fitchburg residents Thomas and Pat O’Brien have tried to be “good neighbors,” they told the Star.
But as active farmers who at one point had a dairy herd, they have seen development inch closer and closer to their operations, sometimes creating conflicts because of agricultural noises and smells.
They say they’ve found a use for the land that’ll allow them to reduce those impacts while still bringing in an income.
The O’Briens are working with Madison Gas and Electric and EDF Renewables to create a solar farm on more than 150 acres of their farmland, located just south of Lacy Road. The project would generate 20 megawatts of energy, which is enough to power 6,300 homes, or the equivalent of about half of Fitchburg.
“I’m a fourth-generation on the farm,” Thomas said. “We fed cows, and we’ve fed people with the products from the cows for years, so now we would like to provide energy for them.
“The world is changing, why not try to be a part of that?” he added.
According to the agreement, EDF is contracted to help design and facilitate the project, which would be owned by MG&E. The power would be used for ratepayers who opt in to the Shared Solar program, which funnels energy generated from renewable sources to their homes or businesses without having to install solar panels on their buildings.
MG&E operates two solar arrays for the program, both of which are in Middleton, at the Morey Field airport and on top of the municipal operations center.
The O’Brien farm solar project would be four times the size of the Morey Field farm, which will generate 5 megawatts of energy upon completion.
Sterling Root, business development manager for EDF, said the O’Brien farmland is one of the only places in the Madison area that can accommodate a solar project this size.
“One advantage of this property that’s unexpected is that because it’s flat land that’s been farmed for a while and is in Madison,” he said, noting it’s near a substation. “It’s a pretty unique situation in that regard.”
Under the agreement signed by MG&E, EDF and the O’Brien’s, the land would be rented for 25 years, with the potential of a 10 year extension, and a mix of vegetation and native grasses that are conducive to pollinators like bees and Monarch butterflies will be planted in between the arrays, Thomas said. The land will also keep its status as agricultural land, he added, so after the project cycles through its lifetime, it can be made back into farmland if the owners choose.
When the O’Briens were first contacted about the project, they were “very enthused,” Thomas said.
They see it as a way to keep their land so it can be passed down to the next generation and as a way to do their part in combating global climate change, Thomas said.
It also preserves their land, Thomas added, keeping it from being turned into a housing development.
Thomas didn’t disclose the conditions of the lease but said it’s “a little more profitable than growing corn and soybeans.”
“We have a win-win feeling, so to speak,” he said.