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Hodag Solar farm, set to power 1,500 Rhinelander-area homes, nears completion

WXPR Hodag Solar A-4.jpg
Dan Dumas
Kim Swisher Communications
The Hodag Solar project encompasses about 50 acres southwest of the city of Rhinelander.

In the near future, a major solar farm near Rhinelander will be cranking out enough electricity to power 1,500 homes.

That’s roughly equivalent to a third of the city.

It’s part of a movement to bring local solutions to climate change to communities in Wisconsin.

The solar farm, situated between Boyce Drive and Highway 17 near Lake Julia, will host 21,000 solar panels on its 50 acres.

WXPR • Hodag Solar Project

On a decidedly overcast October day, skid steers and other heavy machinery bustled around the site, driving head-high supports into the ground and topping them with horizontal rails.

“Each one of these, what you’re looking at, is a torque tube,” explained Forrest Howk as he looked at the infrastructure. “That torque tube will go underneath the panels. One motor will turn this entire row.”

The panels will follow the sun across the sky, drinking in the maximum amount of solar rays. Additional receptors on the bottom of the panels will allow them to collect sun energy reflected off the snow in the winter.

Howk is a project manager for OneEnergy Renewables, the company driving the project.

The Hodag Solar project is the largest of OneEnergy’s 15 sites in the state.

“These projects do three things. First and foremost, they help decarbonize the grid. Second, they provide a local resource with which to meet local energy demand,” Howk said. “Third, it helps the state achieve energy independence.”

WXPR Hodag Solar G-8.jpg
Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
A skid steer moves earth at the Hodag Solar site.

Energy independence is an especially important concept for Wisconsin.

Unlike in other states, there are no coal mines or natural gas reserves here.

“Wisconsin doesn’t have any fossil fuel resources within its boundaries. All of what it consumes has to be imported from another state or country,” said Michael Vickerman, the policy director for RENEW Wisconsin, a Madison-based nonprofit.

A desire to become more energy independent is one reason for the rise of solar in the state.

On top of that, solar energy is no longer an environmentally-conscious-but-pricey option for consumers.

Vickerman said it has now crossed the economic threshold to make fiscal sense, as well.

“The cost of solar has declined rapidly over the last ten years,” he said. “As it has done so, it is now possible to consider larger projects instead of projects that fit on residential and commercial rooftops.”

Projects like Hodag Solar, Vickerman hopes, will help the state reach Gov. Evers’ goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Forrest Howk plants trees with OneEnergy coworkers at the Hodag Solar site.

At the Rhinelander site, as machinery moved soil and built an infrastructure, OneEnergy employees were doing something much simpler.

Four employees methodically planted 200 tiny conifers.

“OneEnergy’s team from Madison actually came up this week, and we’re planting trees on the southern boundary of the site,” Howk explained.

The trees will provide a visual buffer between a few homes and the solar field. The company agreed to the measure after mild resistance by some neighbors worried about aesthetics.

WXPR Hodag Solar A-6.jpg
Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications
These tubes will be topped by 21,000 solar panels. They will tilt with the sun to collect all possible energy.

On the technological side, the project has been temporarily struck by a villain familiar to consumers these days – global supply chain disruption.

“Right now, the modules that are going to be going into this project are delayed. The project schedule is being compressed. Our hope was to get this project online by Christmas. But we’ll be at the whim of when the modules arrive,” Howk said.

Despite the slight delay, Howk said, the enthusiasm for the project hasn’t slipped. People want to feel like they’re combatting a global problem like climate change by doing something locally.

“To be able to put a project in a community that produces electricity, and you can point to it and say, ‘That’s where some of our community’s energy comes from, and I know it’s coming from the sun,’ I think it’s not only educational, but I think it’s empowering,” he reflected.

On a personal level, Howk said he feels empowered by what he does every day.

He grew up in Bayfield, and, for a school project, once found the ice season in that harbor had declined 30 percent over the last century.

That realization catapulted him to undergraduate and graduate studies and eventually a career doing this – fighting for the planet from right here in Wisconsin.

“Seeing climate in your backyard – it took a long way around of degrees and whatnot, but trying to find a way that you can work on solutions in Wisconsin to help combat climate change is really personally motivating,” he said.

WXPR Hodag Solar A-3.jpg
Dan Dumas/Kim Swisher Communications

Once the panels are active, the solar field will last for 20 or 30 years.

During that time, the soil underneath can rest.

Afterward, OneEnergy will seek to remove its footprint. The equipment will be taken away and the field can be returned to agricultural production.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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