A handful of western Wisconsin residents are seeking to overturn the approval of the state’s first large-scale solar farm and have accused its top utility regulator of concealing a conflict of interest in the case.
Jewell-Jinkins Intervenors, a nonprofit company formed by three Iowa County families, filed petitions Wednesday asking the Public Service Commission to halt construction of the Badger Hollow solar farm and review approval of its construction and sale to two utilities.
The families, who opposed the project, say PSC Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq should not have voted on the case because her former law firm, Quarles & Brady, represented Wisconsin Public Service Corp., which will own a share of the project.
The group also contends there was not enough scrutiny of the environmental impact or cost-benefit analysis of the 2,200-acre solar farm, which will be jointly owned by WPS, Madison Gas & Electric and the developer, Invenergy.
The PSC voted 2-0 in April to authorize construction of two solar farms — the 300-megawatt Badger Hollow and 150-megawatt Two Creeks project along Lake Michigan — and to allow the utilities to jointly purchase two-thirds of the panels.
Carol Overland, the attorney representing Jewell-Jinkins, argues that Valcq, who was appointed in December by Gov. Tony Evers, should not have participated because as a partner in Quarles & Brady she would have received shareholder payments even for cases she didn’t work on personally.
Valcq declined to comment because the case remains open and contested, but PSC legal counsel Cynthia Smith said the agency’s conflict review did not reveal any financial interests that would preclude Valcq from participating in matters handled by her previous employer unless she had been personally involved.
“Contrary to the unsubstantiated statements in the petition, Chairperson Valcq was a contract partner and received a fixed salary not tied to any specific representation or financial performance in any case handled by her or the firm,” Smith wrote. “She legally cannot receive any type of financial benefit from any entity who comes before the Commission, regardless of whether she was previously employed there or not.”
Prior to joining the Quarles firm in 2017, Valcq spent 15 years as an attorney for We Energies, the state’s largest utility. She agreed to recuse herself from 28 open cases as well as any new ones filed this year that she had worked on prior to joining the commission; that list did not include the solar farm dockets.
Overland concedes she does not know if or when Valcq stopped receiving shareholder payments or to what extent she may have benefited from the firm’s work.
“Whatever the specifics, there was a time when Chair Valcq did receive remuneration from Quarles related to the firm’s representation of WPSC in the Badger Hollow docket — there is an overlap,” she wrote in the petition. “This goes beyond the appearance of impropriety. It is a direct financial conflict of interest.”
Overland said she is also planning to file conflict-of-interest complaints with the state and the State Bar of Wisconsin as well as a complaint about Quarles & Brady’s efforts to block her clients from participating in the case.
The commission could not have approved the project without Valcq’s participation as the votes took place while the Evers administration had blocked Commissioner Ellen Nowak from participating because of legal questions surrounding her confirmation late last year.
The Supreme Court has since reinstated her, pending a decision on the legitimacy of the state Legislature’s lame-duck session.
In addition to the conflict of interest charge, Overland contends the developer did not meet the statutory requirements for environmental review of the Badger Hollow project, which the petitions say will affect the views and availability of farmland for its neighbors.
Overland goes on to argue the state is not prepared for such a large solar project and has no siting rules. The PSC previously denied Jewell-Jinkins’ petition to draft such rules.
State law gives the PSC 30 days to grant a re-hearing, deny the petitions or simply take no action.
Both solar farms would be larger than any currently built east of the Rocky Mountains and would result in a five-fold increase in Wisconsin’s solar energy capacity.
The utilities said they need to replace aging fossil-fuel generators and that the $389.7 million investment will cost customers $181 million less than other alternatives for meeting demand.