Damakant Jayshi

With neighbors expressing concern over the size, costs and aesthetics of a potential solar panel near a new drinking water treatment plant, the Wausau Water Works Commission on Tuesday opted to take three steps before finalizing the project.

The commission voted unanimously to conduct an additional geotechnical study, create a working group involving neighbors and reevaluate the size of the proposed solar project in light of pending $1.9 trillion Build Back Better Act, which has a federal funding component for solar energy.

The Wausau Water Works Commission made the decision after two commission members – John Robinson and Jim Force – said they were not ready to move ahead with the project in part due to concerns expressed by the residents who will be impacted by the installation of the solar panel in their neighborhood and the likelihood of getting funding for the array if the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation is signed into law.

Robinson, a former Wausau mayor who also serves on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, noted that the BBB Act has $320 earmarked for solar and residential clean energy projects. He said a potential 30% credit – coming through the BBB Act – “would be a game-changer.”

The BBB Act includes billions of dollars that aim to increase the country’s social safety net, address the adverse impact of climate change and lower prices for some prescription drugs. The measure is awaiting its fate in the U.S. Senate after being passed Nov. 19 by the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats who control the 50-50 Senate have vowed to pass the legislation before Christmas.

Commission member Force said he is concerned that neighbors’ input was not collected until after the project plan was drawn up, “so that all we got was a reaction.”

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who is also Chair of the Water Works Commission, endorsed engaging with the community and said she would draw up some criteria for doing so and bring it to the next meeting of the commission.

Director Department of Public Works and Utilities (DPW), Eric Lindman acknowledged that the neighborhood had expressed concerns over the project and suggested the only way to address their concerns was “to move forward with some sort of design for the facility and to start sizing that array.” He added waiting would not be in the utility’s best interest, especially with potential federal dollars coming in.

The proposed solar array would provide electricity to the new drinking water treatment plant on Bugbee Avenue. There are three different sizes of the solar panel, with residents preferring the two smaller options. The project’s estimated cost is $2 million, Lindman said.

Before the vote Lindman pushed, unsuccessfully, for moving ahead with the plan on the solar array. He requested the commission approve moving ahead with a design that would include keeping the trees along Bugbee Avenue and creating a landscape screening plan along the east side of the property.

“Based on the comments from the PIMs (public information meetings) the largest solar array was not well received by the neighborhood but the two small arrays were more acceptable by some if there was landscaping and trees were left on the property to shield the array from (the) view of the neighbors,” Lindman said in a note to the commission members.

Zoning of the property would need to be changed, Lindman added. This would require a public hearing at Plan Commission and then approval by the City Council.

A third public information meeting (PIM) is likely.

The director’s report is attached in the meeting packet. To read in full, click here, and go to page 67.