Solar energy project on Tomah’s tentative horizon


A solar energy development project was introduced to the Tomah City Council, at the Common Council meeting, on Tuesday, July 18th, in the Council Chambers, in City Hall. The presentation was given by Jeffrey Brown, on behalf of ClearPath Energy. Developers from the company hope to utilize the City of Tomah’s closed landfill, on West 24th Avenue, in Tomah, for a clean energy solution that will generate over 4 megawatts of power annually. The investment would be $5 million+ and would serve an estimated 500 to 600 homes, from the panel site. “This is a project introduction,” Brown illustrated. “The idea today is to discuss, take any questions, and come back with any follow ups, in regard to what the project would look like at this moment.”

ClearPath Energy, a renewable energy developer from Boston, is looking to expand in Tomah. “Wisconsin has numerous closed landfills across the state and it's also approaching an era of clean energy development,” explained Brown. “We looked at … not so much on developing on ag land,  but focusing on municipal land that's currently not generating any revenue. There is a long term, 25-year lease that will pay the city $1,000, with an annual escalator,” continued Brown. “We'll offer clean power at a discounted price to the city, to the residents, and to the commercial businesses, and we will generate a long-term tax revenue, in the form of a negotiated private agreement.”

While the prospect of building on a closed landfill may raise concerns, Brown assured the Council Members that this was not something new to ClearPath Energy. “We've done this before, in other states in the country,” Brown cleared up. “We would not puncture the cap.” Brown is referring to a thick lining, composed of several feet of clay, topped with soil and vegetation that prevents water from mixing with the contaminated waste, by slowing the particles movement into the underlying soil and ground water. It is a project funded and monitored by the EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Program. A gas extraction system was also installed, to safely vent the gases from the landfill, into the air. ClearPath energy would work with the Wisconsin DNR, in their pathway of landfill, to clean energy re-development and follow the EPA’s federal Re-Powering program for additional guidance.

Brown estimated a timeline for the project, from start to a potential 40-year end, and split the project into three phases. First phase is establishing a community solar program and could take 2 to 5 years, depending on local permitting and contracting with power companies.

Second phase is construction, and could take anywhere from 6 to 12 months. ClearPath energy utilizes the Heliene 5045 bifacial solar panels that are made in Minnesota. Brown declared, “This is going to be a domestic content project, with over 50% American made construction.” Building on the site seems to be simple, due to the topography and the easy access to infrastructure, which is why this phase has a short expectancy.

In the third phase, Tomah engages in a minimum 25-year lease with ClearPath energy, with the potential to extend the project out to 40 years. A decommissioning bond will be maintained through ClearPath, to ensure the facility is decommissioned at the end of the project’s useful life. ClearPath would then own and operate the facility, until the lease is up or the project ends.

After Brown’s 6-minute presentation, he was met with questions from Tomah mayor, Mike Murray. “What is the average lifespan of the solar panel?” inquired Murray.

Brown answered, “Because the business is still relatively young, right, we expect that these panels are going to last at least 25 years. That's the guarantee that we get from the manufacturer.” He then continued on, to refine his answer. “The goal would be to continue the solar project, and the expectation is that the lease can extend up to 40 years.”

Up to three, 5-year extensions would be negotiated, after the 25-year lease, if agreed upon, between ClearPath and the municipality.  

“And if we decide not to renew, who then, would that fall upon, to dispose of the solar panels? Because solar panels are not easy to dispose of,” the mayor probed.

“That’s on us,” Brown explained, “We would put a decommission bond in place during the construction period and that would stay in place throughout the lifetime of the project.”

Questions also came from Richard Yarrington, District 2 Alderperson on the Tomah City Council. “What would be an average payment per megawatt?” Yarrington inquired.

“That is a rate that really hasn't been developed here in the state of Wisconsin,” admitted Brown, who explains that Wisconsin pays some of the highest energy prices. “I can say this, what we've seen in other states, places like New York and Massachusetts that have similar energy prices, you see it anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per megawatt,” Brown compared.

“Second question, at the landfill, that is on the Oakdale electric power grid, but most of the city of Tomah is covered by Alliant Energy. How does that work, as far as energy between companies?” asked Yarrington.

“That's a part of the discovery process,” Brown responded. “We will just generate the power onto the lines for the utility to sell to its customers.”

Lastly, Nellie Pater, District 7 Alderperson, asked, “What is it saving the average taxpayer?”

“I mean, at this point, none of the other projects have been built in Wisconsin,” Brown explained, “But we have done this process and started a contract process.”

Pater rephrased her question and pressed again for a savings percent, or again, an average amount saved. “We won't build a project unless we can save 10%,” Brown answered.

After the questions ceased, Brown remined the City Council that there currently is no legislation in place on businesses generating and selling solar energy to businesses, or taxpayers in Wisconsin. However, there is the incentive from both the Wisconsin DNR and EPA to clean up, redevelop, and continue to maintain Superfund sites, like the closed Tomah Landfill. “It comes down to creating models that make sense for everyone,” Brown reiterated. He told the council his next step, on behalf of ClearPath Energy, is to work with City Legal, to discuss options. His presentation ended after a “thank you,” from Mayor Murray and the rest of the City Council.


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