TOWN OF BELOIT — As initial construction on a new solar energy field has wrapped up, Alliant Energy says the new West Riverside Energy Center has been operating smoothly and serving hundreds of thousands of customers.

The energy company is also gearing up for construction on several more major solar power projects through southern and central Wisconsin in the coming years.

Bob Newell, Senior Manager of Strategic Projects, said the 4-megawatt solar energy field in the Town of Beloit was expected to be fully operational by the end of February or early March.

Newell said the auxiliary power produced by the solar panels will boost the main natural gas-fired plant’s overall productivity.

“It will help offset some of that parasitic energy consumption that other equipment uses,” Newell said.

The primary site, which produces roughly 700 megawatts of electricity on average each day, uses about 18 megawatts of electricity on its own to keep the lights on and equipment functioning.

Once up and running, West Riverside Energy Center Plant Manager Paul Gregor said the solar panels will be able to power 25% of the main facility’s indoor electrical usage needs as it churns out more power.

“We’ve got to use power to make power,” Gregor said.

The solar panels installed at the Town of Beloit facility were manufactured in South Korea by the company Hanwha. There are a total of 14,769 solar panels—each being one meter wide, about two meters long and 35 millimeters thick.

Alliant Energy is also working on at least nine other solar facility projects throughout Wisconsin.

Those planned facilities are expected to range in power output from roughly 50 megawatts to over 200 megawatts, depending on the size of each project.

Those projects include new solar grids in the following counties: Green, Jefferson, Grant, Rock, Sheboygan, Richland, Dodge and Wood.

In Rock County, Alliant is planning the 65-megawatt Paddock solar project in Beloit and 50-megawatt North Rock solar project in the Town of Fulton.

The North Rock project will span 473 acres. Construction is expected to begin in 2022 and be complete by the end of 2023.

The Paddock project will span 500 acres. Construction is slated to start in 2022 and end in late 2023.

Newell said the main West Riverside Energy Center plant at 4201 S. Walters Road, which went online in the spring of 2020, ran smoothly throughout the summer, fall and has remained efficient heading into 2021.

The West Riverside Energy Center serves more than 550,000 customers, Newell said, and has been operating under budget by $30 million.

Alliant has also finished its extension of the peace trail to the south of the facility, where bicyclists and runners can view the facility from the pathway adjacent to the solar farm.

About a quarter-mile, or 1,200 additional feet of pavement, has been added to the trail, Newell said.

Exterior construction of a visitors center along the walking trail is also complete, Newell said. Crews are still working on the interior of the building, which could open to the public sometime in April.

Gregor and Newell said conversations have continued off and on about when a grand opening ceremony might be possible amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this time, no plans are set in stone, but Gregor said it’s possible a one-year anniversary opening event could be held during the summertime after the solar panels are fully operational, and also if the spread of coronavirus cases begins to decline.

At an appropriate time, Newell said Alliant is looking ahead to some kind of community event and will also recognize the workers.

Gregor said the Town of Beloit facility employs 43 people full time, double the original number.

“We’ve added some pretty good jobs in the area,” Gregor said.

He added that Alliant buys as many consumable products in the local area as possible to help support community businesses.

Newell said tax money from the energy plant ultimately is returned to communities, including the Town of Beloit and Rock County, which split $3 million of annual tax revenue. The township gets roughly $1 million of that pie.

Newell said numerous tests were conducted on emissions and the new facility passed all of them.

“This facility was built because we retired several coal-fired plants and units and replaced them with gas-fitted units,’” Newell said. “The price of natural gas is lower and more cost-competitive.”

Regarding the West Riverside Energy Center project, Gregor said Alliant has been able to operate without excessive noise, communicate their plans with residents and has not seen any issues of groundwater contamination.

Gregor said he and Newell have encourage residents to call them directly with questions or concerns,

“We’ve held up the promises that we’ve made through the construction of the project,” Gregor said. “Now our job is just to do what we’re supposed to do and just continue to make power, to just be a blip on the map. We really should be kind of blending in at this point.”

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